For Court Reporters, Fast Fingers Mean Big Bucks

David Brand

In a borough of 2.4 million people fighting for space, fighting for property or just plain fighting, there is certainly no shortage of trials, grand juries, depositions and hearings.

There is, however, a shortage of people to transcribe them. A reality that makes court reporting an especially valuable job.

“There is going to be a demand, and a need, for at least 5,500 new positions over the next three to five coming years,” Sarah Nageotte, president of the National Court Reporters Association, predicted in a 2014 interview with CNBC. “Fifteen percent of the industry is poised to retire.”

Four years later, it seems that prediction has come true.

Long Island Business Institute Assistant Campus Director Michelle Houston said graduates of the school’s court reporting program in Commack experience a near-100 percent employment rate.

“There are a lot of courts and a lot of court reporting agencies, but there are not enough people to fill them,” Houston said, adding that the school’s most recent salutatorian graduated on April 12 and began writing pretrial proceedings on April 20.

With their vital skills in such high demand, court reporters can make well over $100,000 a year while writing hundreds of thousands of words per week and millions of words per year. Freelancers often earn $3.25 for a standard 25-line page and transcriptions can reach 200 pages, or $650, Houston said.

Though they tap away at a machine that resembles a typewriter, court reporters do not type, they write, Houston said.

The Long Island Business Institute is celebrating its 50th year and its court reporting Associate’s Degree program provides an opportunity for students to earn an impressive income without first obtaining a four-year college degree.

“The competitive programs we have offered at LIBI for over four decades are aimed at an underserved population, the career-minded student, and tailored to the needs of the New York City business and legal community,” LIBI Chairman Leon Lee told Metro in 2015.

But the court reporting program is not easy.

To graduate, students must demonstrate the ability to maintain a writing speed of 225 words per minute with a 95 percent accuracy rate in question and answer testimony — which means they do not know what they will write in advance of the exam.

Students arrive at school with zero experience on the 26-key stenotype machine, a device much different than the conventional QWERTY keyboard, and the attrition rate is high, Houston said.

Those who stick around see their writing speed gradually increased over the course of the first year “Principles of Writing” curriculum. In the second year, students focus on increasing their speed and accuracy.

Before running the court reporting program at Long Island Business Institute, Houston spent nine years as a freelance court reporter. During her career, she wrote pretrial transcripts for attorneys.

To work in the Unified Court System, recorders must first pass the civil servants’ exam.

For a few years in the 1990s, the court system began relying on recordings, which they farmed out to freelance recorders and typists.

Often, however, the recording devices broke or people simply forgot to turn them on. At other times, the transcribers struggled to keep up with the legal jargon, accents or volume.

“It’s not really cost effective then because you have to do the whole proceeding over again,” Eric Allen, president of the Association of Supreme Court Reporters, told the Daily News last year.  “If you don’t have that human interaction, it can be hard to tell who is speaking, it can be impossible to decipher legalese … It’s just not that easy.”

In New York City, the Supreme Courts employ about 350 court recorders, Allen said. Grand juries also want human writers rather than recording devices, the News reported.

Unlike other professions, such as graphic design, where technological changes pose challenges for established workers who have to learn new machines and programs, technology has helped court reports do their job more efficiently with a relatively small learning curve, Houston said.

“The tech shift came on and has helped court reporters,” Houston said. “We used to use paper machines and now we hook up the machines to computers.”

The change also makes reviewing and editing easier for court reporters.

In addition, technological improvements have enabled court reporters to pick up other work writing closed captioning and performing Communication Access Real-time Translation services.

Every day brings a new experience for court reporters. One day, they might write the transcript for a high-profile murder trial and the next, they may transcribe the back-and-forth in a pre-trial meeting for a medical malpractice lawsuit involving complicated medical terms.

In those situations, court reporters tend to write the word phonetically and go back to research the proper spelling later, Houston said.

“You never know where you’re going to be,” Houston said.