It was with both amusement and concern that I recently read an article from Christine Phipps instructing lawyers to only hire stenographic court reporters. Phipps’ article was apparently emailed directly to many attorneys, including our clients. It was amusing because it sounded like a horse-and-buggy driver warning about the dangers of automobiles. That is, it was low on facts and high on fearmongering. The article concerns me because it is a rejection of technology and a call for our legal system to embrace higher and unnecessary costs when it is already under heavy financial stress. Attorneys need to be able to choose the court reporting technology that is best for their particular cases and needs.
Stenographic Reporters versus Digital Court Reporters
Before going any further, let me make it clear that I am a stenographer who can provide real-time services. Stenographic court reporters are an effective means of creating a written record. That said, I recognize the value and need for digital reporters. Phipps’ entire article is based on a strawman comparison between a stenographer and “recorders.” My assumption is that Phipps believes that non-stenographers just show up to depositions with a tape recorder and take a nap until the deposition is over. This is so far from the truth that one could safely assume that Phipps is being deliberately deceitful.
A digital court reporter uses sophisticated multi-channel audio recording equipment (with redundant backup systems) to capture and annotate the audio from the deposition. Digital reporters actively take non-phonetic shorthand notes and can read back testimony upon request. Digital reporters create a written and audio record in real-time. By comparison, a stenographic writer attempts to capture the record by writing every word in phonetic shorthand. It’s a system that was invented before we had things like cars, computers, and televisions. The reality, which Phipps neglects to mention, is that it is impossible for a stenographer to capture every word spoken in a deposition (unless they interrupt constantly and require the parties and witness to speak in a slow monotone voice). To compensate for this fact, stenographers typically bring backup audio recorders with them. In addition, the majority of the steno machines manufactured include – – wait for it – – built-in audio recording systems (see www.stenograph.com/luminex-edge). In other words, digital reporters embrace audio recording technology while some stenographers attempt to hide it up their sleeve.
Nearly four years ago I challenged local stenographers to take on one of our digital reporters in an accuracy challenge. That is, both parties had to attend an 8-hour deposition in which the stenographer was not allowed to use any audio recording devices. The digital reporter, on the other hand, could use all of their technology. Both would be required to produce a transcript within 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, no one has been willing to accept this challenge. That fact speaks very clearly as to which approach is more accurate.
Bizarrely, the Phipps article next implies that digital court reporters are not ethical because they are not members of the National Court Reporters Association (an organization that has a stated goal of advancing stenography). First, the American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers (AAERT) adheres to strict ethical standards, just like the NCRA. Second, it is pretty sad if the only thing keeping your reporter honest is their trade association membership. Any reporter who is not partial could and should be held in contempt of court, would lose their clients, and would never practice again. Frankly, it is highly offensive to our 60+ digital reporters who produce accurate transcripts every single day. Paying dues to a trade association does not make you ethical.
Finally, Phipps suggests that digital court reporters are less educated than stenographers who earn “associate or bachelor” degrees. Here is quick rundown of some of the schools from where our digitals hold degrees: University of Central Florida, University of DePaul, University of Kentucky, Bethune Cookman, Rollins College, Bellarmine University, University of Louisville, University of Western Kentucky and many others. Stenographers, on the other hand, typically attend a trade school where the vast majority of their time and classes are simply speed building and theory classes. In other words, they are learning how to write in phonetic shorthand and then learning how to type it fast. How that makes a stenographer better equipped to deal with a deposition is beyond me. In fact, most stenographic schools are trade schools that do not offer bachelor’s degrees. Instead, they offer graduates a “certificate”. There is nothing wrong with that approach but it should not be misrepresented. All digital reporters (at least ours) go through an immersive apprenticeship. By the time they take their first deposition, they have seen more depositions and hearings than the average attorney has seen in four years.
Scaremongering About Audio
After disparaging the education, ethics, and ability of digital reporters, Phipps next claims that no one should trust audio or video recordings. Yes, I am being serious. So, before proceeding, we will pretend to forget that virtually all stenographers rely on audio recorders and backups to complete their transcripts. That said, Phipps’ first concern is that audio could be bad because of acoustic problems, battery failure, or some other problem from a parade of horribles. Of course, devices can run out of batteries. Of course, an air conditioner can turn on and create audio interference. That is exactly why all digital court reporters bring multiple and redundant recording systems while continuously monitoring the audio during the deposition (in addition to typing). Meanwhile, your stenographer is relying on one backup that could fail without their knowledge. Which one is riskier? Clearly, it is the stenographer’s approach.
Phipps’ next argument is that some words can be mispronounced and gives the example of “medical malpractice and asbestos.” She then implies that only stenographic reporters know the difference. Frankly, I have no idea where this is coming from. Digital court reporters take depositions every single day. Stenographers average three a week. This is because stenographers need more downtime to finalize their transcripts. In terms of annual experience, the digital reporter is far more likely to recognize a term of art than a stenographer. Of course, if they do not recognize a word, they are free to interrupt an attorney and ask for clarity…just like a stenographer. Moreover, our digital reporters are supported by teams of in-house proofreaders who hold advanced degrees in English and have reviewed millions of pages of medical malpractice transcripts.
Oddly, Phipps points out that people do not always hear what a person says correctly. A witness might say “itch” and a reporter could hear “switch.” A stenographer has only a split second to listen to a witness and try to write down what they say. A digital reporter also writes as they go. However, they also have a second transcriptionist and proofreader review their transcript with audio before it is finalized. The reporter then reviews it a final time. The digital system allows the reporter to confirm their first impressions and ensure a completely verbatim transcript. A stenographer who does not use a backup recorder is just taking a shot in the dark.
Finally, Phipps suggests that someone might use some technology to hack into audio and/or video and change the recording. Yes, apparently she believes that digital court reporters are uniquely exposed to Tom Cruise sneaking in and hacking their transcripts on one of his impossible missions. Again, digital reporters rely on audio, their written notes, and sometimes also video. All of these media files are redundantly stored on their devices and the companies’ redundant servers…in perpetuity. If these “hackers” were a threat, then they are an equal risk to stenographers who save all of their notes and audio electronically. Steno machines even have built-in wireless, Bluetooth, and USB ports which make them particularly vulnerable.
Why Choose Digital Court Reporters
According to the NCRA, the average age of stenographers in America is over 54. Stenographic trade schools are rapidly closing, and the remaining schools cannot keep up with demand. The NCRA has been predicting a shortfall of over 5,000 reporters per year. In short, stenographers will age out of the work force over the next 20 years and will not be replaced. The reason that you can still timely schedule court reporters is because digital court reporters have filled the void left by retiring stenographers. They are responsible for taking millions of pages of transcripts per year and are quickly becoming the most common type of reporter present in and out of state courtrooms. Digital reporters can create transcripts in a more timely and efficient manner, which has led to lower prices, increased accuracy, and faster turnaround times. Abandoning digital reporters would halt the progress of all litigation as attorneys would have to schedule months in advance to actually find a stenographer who is available. Meanwhile, prices would skyrocket while consumer choice plummets. It just does not make sense.
In terms of security, stenographers write in a phonetic shorthand. Different stenographers have different shorthand codes for the same words. In other words, stenographers cannot even read all of the writing of other stenographers. If your stenographer is not available to fully translate their transcript, it is possible that no one on Earth could fully translate it with 100% accuracy. Digital reporters, on the other hand, write in basic shorthand and have multiple audio backups. If you elect to wait to transcribe your deposition, you can be certain that it can be transcribed in the future.
Again, I am real-time stenographic writer. There are still things that only a real-time stenographic writer can do – – namely, write in real-time. When you need a transcript of a witness as the proceeding occurs, you need a real-time stenographic writer who charges a premium for their services. According to the NCRA, there are over 32,000 stenographers in America but only 2,478 are certified as real-time writers. They represent the best of the best and even they cannot achieve 100% accuracy. So, when Phipps says that every stenographer is writing in real-time, she only means that they are typing while you are present. The vast majority are not getting close to every word. In any event, you do not need a real-time writer at your EUO or basic discovery deposition, you would be paying a premium for something that you do not use or need.
Stenographers and digital reporters use two different approaches to achieve the same end. We ensure that all of our stenographers and digitals provide verbatim transcripts. With over 400,000 pages written this year alone, we are confident in our accuracy. If your reporter has to bad mouth innovation instead of letting their work speak for itself, it may be time to look for a new court reporter. Rather than analyzing how a court reporter produces a transcript you should instead focus on their results. Ask yourself: is the transcript accurate, was it delivered in a timely manner, was the reporter professional and friendly. When you answer these basic questions, you will find that there is no real difference in the product provided by digital reporters and stenographers.