Despite all the advancements in speech-to-text software, when it comes to the courtroom, a human touch is required to create a perfect transcript. Court reporters work diligently to maintain very high standards of accuracy in their transcriptions -- 97.5% just to qualify in the US, in fact.
When you picture a courtroom, even if your knowledge mostly comes from film and television, you probably picture someone sitting on the sidelines of the trial typing on a stenotype machine -- that's the court reporter. It's their job to provide a perfect record of the proceedings, giving that audio recordings can be hampered by errant noise or soft spoken speech. To learn about the trade we spoke with Cassandra Caldarella, a court reporter in Orange County.
Tell us about your current position, and how long you've been at it.
I am an official court reporter at The Superior Court of California, County of Orange. I've been there for only four months. Prior to that, I was a pro tempore reporter for that court and for Los Angeles Superior Court. I was also an official court reporter for Los Angeles Superior Court for four years.
I started court reporting school in 2003 and qualified to take the state exam in 2005. I passed the exam in August of 2006 and have been reporting as a certified court reporter for nine years.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I started out as an account executive in the technology industry. One day, I accidentally intercepted a report on the department printer that listed the salaries of everyone in my department and I was shocked to find out my male counterparts were making at least $US20k more than me and they didn't have a Bachelor's Degree or the experience that I had working for Fortune 500 companies. I decided to make a career change where I would be paid what I deserved with no glass ceilings. I remembered a court reporter I had met at my friend's kid's birthday party who had told me all about what she does. I looked into it and found out that I could be my own boss and make great money and I enrolled in school the day I made that determination to do it and never looked back.
How did you go about getting your job as a court reporter? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I freelanced for two years and did a lot of hearings and grand jury proceedings and found that I liked the structure of court and arbitration proceedings better. I applied for Los Angeles Superior Court along with 350 other applicants. They narrowed the field to 125 after a proofreading test. And from the interviews, they selected eight new hires, one of which was me. Although I had a Bachelor's Degree, it was not needed for my position as an official. I think the degree has helped to set me apart from other court reporters because few reporters have a degree. I think my experience doing grand jury hearings and LAPD hearings and other types of hearings set me apart from the other job applicants. I did the work that other reporters didn't like doing, the harder stuff.
Did you need any licences or certifications?
The industry standard is to have a Certified Shorthand Reporter (CSR) licence to work in the state of California as a court reporter. In order to qualify to sit for the state exam, you have to have graduated from an NCRA approved court reporting school. You have to pass a qualifying examination which is a two-person live voice dictation of five minutes at 200 words per minute with an accuracy of 97.5%. In addition to the machine test, you must pass a written examination in English, grammar, punctuation, and terminology. National Court Reporters Association is the national organisation. They have certifications, including the RPR, RMR, RDR, CRR, and many more. The basic certification is the Registered Professional Reporter examination which consists of a jury charge dictation at 180 words per minute, literary dictation at 200 words per minute, and a question and answer dictation at 225 words per minute with an accuracy of 97.5% or better. All of the testing is now done online as of this coming fall.
The most desirable certifications include the Certified Realtime Reporter (CRR) and the California Certified Realtime Reporters (CCRR). These require experience and training and a lot of time working on perfecting our writing. When you have these certifications, you can get pay increases at the Superior and District Court levels. And as a freelance reporter, you can get better jobs and be more in demand. There is a growing demand for realtime reporters and the pay is higher. You can also qualify for International jobs by having these realtime credentials.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
The major misconception about court reporting is that it will be extinct in the near future. People have been predicting that for the last 20 or so years. The truth is that a computer or electronic recording will never be able to replace us. There are too many examples of human error involved with electronic recording, such as bailiffs and clerks forgetting to hit the record button or the recording file being corrupted, or a door slamming at the exact moment a ruling was made, making the audio recording useless. Live court reporters are there to protect the record. They know they are getting the testimony and are in control of it. They are able to stop people from talking over each other, to ask for a witness to repeat testimony if it is too soft-spoken or there is a loud noise that happens simultaneously, or if they're talking too fast and slurring words. Live reporters are able to ask for proper spellings of names. Without a transcript on appeal, a case may get dismissed.
What are your average work hours?
It can be almost a 24/7 type of job. In court, I work 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day as an official, but I'm also an independent contractor. Transcripts are considered independent contractor work and must be done on my time. So after working seven hours per day in the courtroom, I must do transcripts on my time, which is during lunch, and in the mornings and evenings. I use a team of scopists and proofreaders to help me accomplish the high demand of producing daily transcripts when I'm in trial. We can basically do about 36 hours of work in a 24-hour period. When I'm in trial doing dailies, I make it a rule to go to bed at 10:00 p.m. while my scopists and proofreaders work through the night and turn in a final product by 6:00 a.m. I get up at 5:30, shower, then I'm in my home office preparing the final transcript and get it sent to the attorneys by 7:00 a.m., then I print all the copies and leave for work by 8:00 a.m. When I'm not in trial, I get to relax at home like regular 9-to-5ers.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
I stay current on all technology. I have the latest software, hardware, tech gadgets, and gizmos. I have the latest ProCat Impression steno writer which has a touch screen, wireless bluetooth, and ability to record separate audio on the machine for sidebars. I am a regular beta tester for my CAT software and attend a lot of trainings.
Backing up is key to protecting the record. I have two SD cards in my writers. I write to my laptop, so that is another backup. My software creates a backup file. I also save out to Dropbox to send to my scopists. I use a USB flash drive to copy out every file. I save it to my desktop computer at home, which is backed up to a 2TB external drive and then I just got a 2TB cloud drive. You can never have too many backups.
The most important thing in court reporting is to stay organised. We often juggle multiple deadlines for transcripts and we have to stay extremely organised in order to not miss a deadline. We've got to manage work that's out to scopists and proofreaders. And we have to keep our accounting organised to constantly manage the accounts payables and receivables. Our profession is deadline driven and organisation is crucial.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I'm constantly taking certification tests. I attend conventions and seminars. I'm a member of several court reporting associations and also lawyer associations. I accept volunteer leadership roles in my community and associations. I visit my alma mater court reporting school regularly to talk to the students and try to inspire them. So many of my peers just want to do a job and go home and not contribute to this profession. I push myself harder. I practice speed tapes in my down time to get better and faster.
I also keep up to date on legal industry news and court reporting news.
When I'm at a job, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. The attorneys in trial are focused on winning their case. I write down spellings to get later and wait for them to ask me if I need anything. That time always comes. I don't have to bother them when they're preoccupied. Also, I set up all of my realtime equipment without bothering the attorneys. I once watched a reporter set up her equipment on the attorneys desks and then ask them if they could see what she was writing. I thought that was very obtrusive while they were concentrating on the trial at hand. What I do instead, is set up all the monitors on my desk and get them working and then I place them on the attorneys desks once I know their feed is live that way they don't have to be bothered.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Sometimes we will work straight through without a break (judges will forget that we need breaks). I maintain eye contact with courtroom staff such as the bailiffs and clerks and give them a signal if I need a break and they alert the judge to take a break. Other times we'll work through lunch. I'll keep protein bars in my bag and make sure I keep my energy level up so I can be alert and concentrate. Towards the end of the day, my back can get really sore, so I keep a bottle of Tylenol in my bag for those days, or rooms can get really hot, so I keep a couple of mini USB fans in my bag. Sometimes we have really uncomfortable chairs to sit in for hours at a time -- I don't have a solution for that yet, but I've seen reporters carry around lumbar support pillows with them just in case. A lot of times, transcripts will be ordered right before a holiday or scheduled vacation and we have to drop everything to produce a transcript. It's definitely rough to miss seeing friends and family while working long hours.
Perhaps the worst part of our job is dealing with high-strung personalities, fast talkers, and really disturbing subject matters. I schedule regular happy hour vent sessions with reporter friends who are the only people who can truly understand our job and commiserate and laugh with them liberally and regularly.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
The most enjoyable part of the job is being introduced to a vast and endless amount of information and always something new every day. I love meeting new people every day, whether it be attorneys, judges, clerks, bailiffs, other reporters, and expert witnesses. I get to be in the middle of all the action, hear the stuff nobody else gets to hear in chambers, and hear all types of stories for a living.
I love that I can provide a valuable service to others. I am there at a very difficult and stressful time in people's lives. It's nice to know that people depend on me and that I'm helping them by providing them with an accurate record of their proceedings. Every now and then, attorneys and their clients thank me for my hard work and great work product and service and truly appreciate me. And it's great when I get requested again and again.
I also love my network of court reporters and the opportunity to meet other reporters. I can always spot them in the hall with their brand name steno equipment and bags. And I always introduce myself and try to get to know a little bit about them. There's a ton of Facebook groups for court reporters. And then there are the conventions where hundreds of reporters will take over a hotel and swap stories for a weekend. Court reporters are the most interesting people, when they finally get a chance to talk. They're some of the most intelligent, articulate, and humorous people in the world. I love bumping into court reporters in the most unexpected places.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
The more an official court reporter knows about the case, the better -- having a list of witnesses, list of medications, list of names that will be mentioned, medical procedures, general case topic -- will be able to help your reporter add entries to the realtime dictionary for this case that will result in a better translation and better user experience for the realtime feed. It can help the judge make rulings on objections in the case. Make time for a reporter during the breaks and ask if they need any spellings or clarification from you on anything that came up. Remember that everything being said is not only being written stenographically by the court reporter, but a jury can only listen at about 200-225 words per minute. If you're going too fast for the court reporter to keep up, you can bet the jury is not comprehending it either.
How do you "move up" in your field?
There are several ways you can be considered to be "moving up" in our field. You can move up the income scale and make more money by getting better jobs. Those better jobs are usually realtime jobs in construction defect, medical malpractice, asbestos, and other specialty areas. There are what's called senior reporters with all of the court reporting agencies, and that's usually earned with time. To break through into the big leagues, you have to differentiate yourself and be willing to do what other reporters don't want to do. When courts privatised civil matters, the only reporters willing to do it were the ones who were laid off from the courts, then slowly, outside depo reporters started being sent in to do the civil matters in court and some of them swore it off, never to step foot in court again. A lot of depo reporters do not want to go into court because of either fear of the unknown or experience-based fears. Doing daily trials all by yourself is about as top of the line as it gets in the court reporting world.
The other way you can consider moving up in court reporting is by position. A position at the Superior Court level is a step up from doing freelance depositions. A position in District Court is a step above Superior Court. And being a Senate Reporter, reporting senate hearings in Washington D.C., is just about the top of the ladder here in the U.S. I've met reporters who work at the International Criminal Tribunal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands. I know international reporters who travel all over the world reporting depositions and hearings and conventions and meetings. There are so many opportunities as a court reporter.
What do people under or over value about what you do?
People often take court reporters for granted. People want our product but don't want to pay for it. It's like what happened with the music industry when it went digital and it became commonplace to have music shared freely without buying it. Same thing is happening in court reporting. With electronic files so easily shared, attorneys and even the court of appeal are giving away our transcripts to anyone who wants it, and court reporters are not getting compensated for their work.
Attorneys don't understand everything that happens to prepare for their proceeding or trial. And after the trial is over for the day, my work on their transcript is just beginning. They don't understand the sacrifices that we make to produce their transcript -- working on evenings and weekends and not seeing our family, skipping meals, and not getting to watch TV like normal people. When they ask for transcripts, they expect us to magically produce them right that instant. They don't understand all of the work that goes into preparing a certified transcript -- the research, the editing, the perfecting, the proofreading, reading and re-reading.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
There are a variety of resources to help those that are interested in court reporting, including the National Court Reporters Association. There are a lot of court reporting Facebook groups out there as well. The most important thing you can do is go to court and observe first-hand what it is like to be in court.
Reading is also a prerequisite. Writing on our little machine can be taught, but the love of language and reading and words and grammar is what will make it an enjoyable and satisfying career. Have a passion for and love what you do.
The court reporting industry is a very small, close-knit community. Get to know someone in the industry and make them your mentor.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Our pay scale is publicly available and can be found in an internet search. Pay varies significantly based on geographical location, certifications, and years of experience. It's also important to note that court reporters have errors and omissions insurance, disability insurance, school loans, continuing education fees, and equipment costs that affect the bottom line. Most people live comfortably, but few people get rich. I'm proud to be in the same compensation range as many lawyers, judges, and doctors.
The salary range for someone starting out in court reporting full-time in California is $US45,000 - $US95,000. The salary for officials in Los Angeles and Orange County, California is $US97,000, plus transcript income. My most recent income for the past three years has been $US225,000 doing private civil trials in Los Angeles Superior Court. I know several reporters who made that doing what I did. And I know one reporter assigned to a long-cause civil trial courtroom who made $US360,000 per year by my estimation. According to a study by the NCRA, the top 10% income earners in court reporting make over $US150,000 per year.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about -- from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.