The Importance of Court Reporters to Legal Practice
by Brian Shepard
In the abstract we all know we need a court reporter for our depositions. We know, generally, what they do, but do we really know? Have we ever even really thought about it? We know that they have the ability to place the witness under oath and that their main function is to take down the testimony of everyone in the room providing a clear record for use at trial. But how many of us really take the time to think about the court reporter and the extent that what they do and the skill with which they do it contributes to our end product?
We all know the goal of depositions are to get a record of what a witness has to say, pin down their testimony, and gain admissions and concessions for trial. But all the skill of the deposition taker or the artfulness of the question or objection is for nothing if it doesn’t come across clearly in the record. We, the lawyers, certainly bare much responsibility for ensuring our questioning comes across clearly. However, at the end of the day, the “record” we receive is made by the court reporter. We can walk out of a deposition thinking it went stunningly, we really nailed it, that the witness gave us everything we wanted, etc. But what do we actually walk out of a deposition with? Nothing! We should all take a few moments and think about that. Done? Ok, we can move on.
We rely on the court reporter to take what was said and give us a nice, clean transcript that we can offer up for use at trial. Fortunately for us, today’s court reporters are skilled professionals who typically attend school for three years or more learning how to a take a keyboard that looks like this:
and turn several hours of complicated back and forth dialogue into 100-plus pages of actual written English-language words. They are a valuable part of the deposition and court process. Lisa King*, a local court reporter, gave me a few tips to pass on.
First, when you or someone in your office is booking a court reporter for a deposition, it is important to let the service know what type of witness is being deposed. Ms. King reports that while all reporters are skilled, like in any job, there is a large disparity in the level of proficiency among different court reporters. A reporter who is taking down the deposition of a complicated expert witness, on a contested topic with multiple lawyers involved, may be more likely to find themselves in a situation where people are talking over one another. Additionally, technical, medical, or unusually scientific subject matter may further complicate matters. When these things occur, it may be necessary to ensure you have a court reporter with appropriate skills in terms of content ability and speed and proficiency. On the other hand, the deposition of a relatively-simple lay fact witness with not a lot of controversy involved may allow for the use a less-experienced reporter.
Additionally, it is important to let the service you are hiring know what kind of time frame in which you will need a completed transcript. We are all guilty of wanting things done more quickly than may be practical. Fortunately, a little bit of forward planning can save both the lawyer and the court reporter loads of grief. This would be easier accomplished with a little understanding of how the court reporting and transcription process actually works.
Despite the apparent real-time nature of the court reporter’s work, much more goes into it. In order to accommodate the speed at which we speak, court reporters take the words that are spoken and turn them into a roughly phonetic “steno” output. This steno is, for the uninitiated, frankly unreadable by English speakers. Historically, this would require the paper steno output to be manually transcribed by the reporter or sent off to others to be converted and transcribed.
All of this takes time. For example, Ms. King reports that she can edit about twenty pages of deposition an hour to get to a rough draft. After that, there is further editing and proofing to be done to ensure that the final product is as good at it can be. Ms. King reports that while many court reporters do this work themselves, it is also not uncommon to recruit the work of people trained in steno language (“scopists”) to help them. Each service will have a standard turnaround time for deposition transcripts (usually about two weeks), but it is important to communicate with the service and your individual court reporter when that usual turnaround time may be inadequate. Depending on need, say depositions taken at night during trial, a lawyer may be able to find a court reporter who at the moment has a lighter-than-average workload. In this case, they may be able to “rush” transcripts to the frazzled lawyer’s content. However, it is important to be realistic with expectations, and it is even more important to communicate your expectations at the time of booking.
Ms. King recalls a time when she was just preparing to go on vacation and was asked to cover what she thought was to be the deposition of a brief lay witness with no specific “rush” involved. Come to find out, the lawyer actually had several expert witnesses that needed deposed, and transcripts for all of them were needed very quickly. Fortunately for the lawyer involved, Ms. King, like many in her field, was a consummate professional and was able to oblige. Many times though, people may not find themselves so fortunate. We all know that unexpected contingencies can arise; but the goal is to help everyone in the process out and let your court reporter service know what you need and when you need it, as soon as you can.
*I’d like to thank Lisa King for her assistance with this article. Lisa is a Certified Court Reporter, a Certified Shorthand Reporter, and a Registered Professional Reporter, licensed by the National Court Reporters Association. She currently works as a freelance court reporter in the southwest Missouri area and has been working in the field for over 20 years.