By Anna Johansson
When you contemplate self-employment opportunities, court reporting probably isn’t the first profession that comes to mind. Yet, court reporting is one of the most important professions on the planet.
Court reporters are essential to our judicial system and are responsible for creating an accurate record of legal proceedings. These records are routinely referenced later on and the contents can make or break someone’s appeal. Accuracy is imperative for those seeking appeal.
Although court reporting is central to the legal system, the profession has seen a decline in recent years. The decline is likely due to the use of digital court reporters and little to no marketing for manual stenography programs. However, court reporters remain in high demand, yet there aren’t enough reporters to fill that demand.
1. Digital court reporting will never replace human stenographers
Digital court reporters are human beings, but they don’t document legal proceedings the way a stenographer does. Digital court reporters are basically trained to operate digital recording equipment and take general notes, but not word-for-word.
At first, it might seem like digital court reporting makes things easier. Having a full audio recording of everything said in the courtroom sounds easier than having someone type it out in short hand and then turn it into a full transcript. However, digital recordings don’t capture dialogue accurately. Often, background noise – like traffic coming through an open window – makes it impossible to decipher parts of a recording.
Although technology has come a long way, audio recording devices can’t automatically filter background noise or create separate layers of audio when multiple people speak at once. Unfortunately, background noise and people talking over each other produce digital recordings with numerous gaps and missing testimony.
2. Outsourced transcription is the biggest threat to accuracy
Perhaps the biggest problem with digital court reporting is that digital recordings are sent out to third parties for transcription. This former digital court reporter explains why this results in poor quality transcripts. Essentially, someone who was not present in the courtroom is tasked with transcribing what they hear.
Transcription services are usually contracted overseas and performed by people who don’t catch the nuances of another culture’s dialect and idioms, resulting in inaccurate transcripts.
An investigation by WCVB Channel 5 Boston uncovered several errors in digital court transcripts made by third-party transcribers. For example, a witness was asked, “what was the friends name?” The outsourced transcriber documented the answer as “Ethan” while the court reporter present in the courtroom documented the answer as “Kayla.”
This may not seem like a big deal, but appeals can hinge on small details. Also, there have been times when third-party transcribers have documented witnesses as acknowledging that they committed a crime when other (illegal) recordings have proven otherwise.
It’s not that transcribers are trying to create flawed transcripts. It’s the inferior nature of digital technology combined with a language barrier causing the errors.
3. Lawyers will always prefer stenographers
Despite courts implementing digital court reporting, lawyers still prefer manual stenography. When given a choice between digital and manual reporting, attorneys will choose stenographers. Ironically, they cost about the same.
Many attorneys have tried to use digital court reporters and have gone back to hiring stenographers. Their priority is a high level of accuracy that only stenographers can provide.
4. Technology should supplement court reporting
It seems like we’re always racing to replace human tasks with technology. Sure, it would be nice to have a robot to do your laundry and dishes, but at some point, those robots will ruin your clothes and burn your dinner. Charred dinner and shrunken sweaters are easy to recover from, but some people will never recover from botched court transcriptions.
When dealing with transcriptions whose accuracy can make or break someone’s appeal (or other legal proceedings), technology should remain in a position to support rather than replace the tasks of manual stenography.
Stenographers are often self-employed
Court reporting is something you can do as a freelancer. In fact, many court reporters are self-employed and take on work between other responsibilities.
If you’re looking for a new profession you can master and then work independently, consider court reporting. There is job security in being a stenographer, although as time goes on, it might become a more competitive field.
The sooner you begin your learning, the more experience you’ll have when or if that happens. With experience and accuracy, you can charge competitive rates and turn court reporting into a financially rewarding career.
Anna Johansson is the founder and CEO of Johansson Consulting, where she works with businesses to create marketing and PR campaigns.