Freelance Court Reporter

Precise Court Reporting (Lake Ronkonkoma, NY)
Stony Brook University - B.A. 
Rating: 5 out of 5
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Views: 13,520

Interview Date: 12/20/07

Interviewer: Meagan O'Connell

What is the job of a court reporter?

A court reporter takes down everything that is said in depositions, public hearings, trials, etc. Some court reporters do closed-captioning for television, and some work as secretaries, taking down dictation for attorneys.

Can you describe your job?

As a freelance court reporter, I actually do several different types of jobs. My agency does a lot of contract work with the New York State Assembly and the Division of Human Rights, so I work all of their public hearings. They have a lot of cases where people are suing employers for sexual harassment, race and gender charges. I also do a lot of personal injury cases, corporate law, and copyright infringement. I work in almost every area of law except criminal law.

What are your responsibilities?

Because court reporters are considered officers of the court, we have to pass the Notary Public test, which makes us responsible for swearing in the witness who is going to testify. I am responsible for making sure I take every single word down that was said and then creating a transcript (a verbatim record of the entire conversation). If people are speaking too quickly, too quietly, or incomprehensibly, I have to interrupt and ask them to repeat themselves. My job is to make sure everything is taken down correctly, so I have to be able to take control of the situation. At the end of the day, I read through the transcript for spelling and punctuation errors, and then I print it out to proofread again. Usually, I have two weeks before it is due to the agency, which then sends it out to the attorneys.

Who do you work for and how do you get paid?

I work for a court reporting agency in New York. I get all of my jobs through my agency, but I am not their employee, technically. Because I am a contract worker, I am responsible for paying my own income taxes quarterly, and I do not get medical benefits or a pension from my agency. I earn a flat rate of $3.25 per page that I write.

Where do you work?

My job requires that I travel to different offices and courts, so I work in a different location almost every day. Most of my work takes place in Manhattan, but I also work on Long Island in Nassau and Suffolk Counties a couple times a month.

What do you use to take down the transcript?

I use a short-hand machine called a Stentura, which is made by the company Stenograph. It allows me to use an abbreviated alphabet and groups of letters to stand for different phrases. There are strokes for common sayings like "did there come a time" or "I don't remember," and there are designations to show who is speaking. I work with the Stentura attached to my laptop, and what I type on the machine is translated into words on my laptop screen so that I can proofread it and create a transcript.

What is the difference between a freelance court reporter and a court reporter who works for the state or the federal government?

Freelance court reporters work for an agency that schedules and assigns jobs for each day. A lot of court reporters work for a couple of different agencies, but my agency gives me enough work to keep me busy. Usually, freelance court reporters do not work in the courts, and instead they do a lot of depositions and hearings. After working in the field all day, we have to go home and write transcripts. To work in the state or federal court, you have to have been a freelance court reporter for at least 2 years, and you have to pass a specific exam and speed test. State and federal court reporters are government employees, and are paid accordingly. They do not have make a transcript unless the attorney orders one. In that case, they get paid extra to create a transcript. A state or federal court reporter could earn several thousand dollars per year just for transcripts that are ordered, in addition to his base salary.

What happens to the transcript after you send it in?

The agency sends the finished copy to the attorney. If the attorney asks for additional copies, I get paid 50 cents extra for every page, which is a nice bonus. On the back of the transcript, there is a page called an "errata sheet" where the witness can make any corrections. Once the witness receives the transcript, he or she has 30 days to review it for errors. Then the witness signs the errata sheet it in front of a Notary Public, and sends it to the attorney who did the questioning. The transcript then becomes an official record that can be used in court.

How is a public hearing transcript different?

In the NYS Assembly hearings, there is no proofreading because the court reporter is simply creating a transcript of what happened, which then becomes a public record.

How did you decide to become a court reporter?

I received a B.A. in Psychology from Stony Brook University. I took some time off before going for my masters degree, but then decided I wasn't ready to return to school. I saw an ad in the paper for court reporting school, and after sitting in on a class I thought it was interesting and decided to sign up.

What is the school like?

When I went in 1996 it was a certificate program. Today you need an associate's degree. I had to take a certain amount of classes including English, and classes that taught legal and medical terminology. For the first 3 months you learn the shorthand language, and then your main focus is on increasing your speed. You type very slowly in the beginning.

Can a school's reputation affect the type of job you get?

Definitely. The school you go to has a lot of impact on where you get work. I went to a school with a bad reputation, but I didn't know that at the time. Several court reporting schools have gone out of business. I had some prior work experience plus a four-year degree, which helped me get a job even though I went to a bad school. I think the degree makes you seem like a more well-rounded person, and it makes you more marketable as a court reporter.

How fast do you have to type in order to graduate?

You have to pass every speed test to graduate, and you move from class to class depending on your speed. The deposition test, which is a question and answer session that simulates an attorney questioning a witness, is the hardest at 225 words a minute. The jury test, which simulates someone speaking to a jury, is only 200 words a minute. The medical terminology test has a slower requirement of 175 words a minute because the words are so difficult.

How long did it take you to graduate?

I went to school four nights a week, and it took me 18 months to complete the program. A full-time student usually goes 18-24 months, give or take a little. Normally, it would take a part-time student three years to get his speed up.

Did you ever get discouraged?

The school is very stressful, but I went through the program quickly.The training is a big investment, and it is something you really have to be dedicated to and practice because the odds are stacked against you. When I signed up for the school, they never told me that there was an 80% drop out rate. I was the only one out of 10 classmates who actually graduated.

What made you decide to continue working as a freelance court reporter?

Personally, I like it because I have a lot more flexibility in my schedule than I did before. I don't always work five days a week, and I don't work a traditional "9 to 5" job. Most jobs as a freelance court reporter will start at 10 a.m. Seven out of ten depositions will go the full day, but others might only go for 2 to 5 hours. Then your work in the field is done, but you are still responsible for proofreading the transcript once you get home.

How much of your day is spent working after you leave the office?

It varies. For example, this week I had a job on Tuesday that started at 10 a.m., and we finished at 4 p.m. I had about another four hours of work to do at home to finish the transcript. It's not always equal time at home; sometimes it's more and sometimes it's less. I work until midnight sometimes just trying get caught up, because it's easy to get behind if I have a lot of pages to review.

Do you have the same amount of work to do each week?

No. One week I may have 800 pages to write, and then I may have 500 pages the next week. I never have the same amount of work, but the agency knows what I'm capable of handling. On average, I type between 500 and 600 pages a week.

How is every day different?

One day you can type 250 pages, and the next day only have 50 pages. You never really know what you're walking into, but sometimes the attorneys give you an estimate of how long the day is going to be. You can expect that the day is going to be long if it is a continuing case, or if there is more than one witness to be deposed. Cases of sexual harassment or discrimination can go on for hours and hours. Personal injury depositions are really predictable, and usually go for only 2-3 hours. You need to be familiar the business to be able to predict how long the jobs are going to be. I have a lot of attorneys who request me through the agency, so I end up working with them a lot. Because I know them pretty well, I know what their day is going to be like, and the type of questioning to expect. You get into a rhythm.

What is the longest day you ever had?

One public hearing for NYC Higher Education went from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and we only got an hour and a half for a break. At a lot of hearings for the NYS Assembly, they don't give us breaks - we just type until they are done.

What is your deadline for each transcript?

The usual deadline for a normal deposition or hearing is either two weeks or 10 business days, but you have to work every day in order to stay on top of things. There are days when attorneys will ask for an expedited transcript, which means they want it back in three days. Sometimes an attorney requests a daily transcript, which means he wants the transcript the next day, and you have to stay up all night just to finish it. You get paid more for those jobs, and the attorneys usually request a fast turn-around in advance. If that happens, my agency usually gives me the next day off to get the work done.

How much self-discipline does this job take?

A lot. You are never done when you get home, so your work can pile up if you aren't careful. You need to be able to set and follow a schedule. If you fall behind, your agency won't want to give you as much work. I fell behind more in the beginning when didn't know how to manage my time, but not anymore. I always produce my transcripts on time, and I know what I am capable of handling.

How much do you learn on the job compared to what you learn in school?

You learn 75% more on the job. They don't prepare you properly in school - they can't. In school, the teacher reads a Q & A transcript at different speeds, with different voices to represent the attorney and witness so you know who is supposed to be speaking. In the real world, you could have 5 attorneys in the room, and it is very difficult to take down the transcript your first few times because you are not used to using designations for so many different speakers. You will also have to do a lot of legal research on the job.

Because you are paid per page, is your salary always fluctuating from year to year?

Mine has been pretty constant, because my agency and I both know what I'm capable of doing. My salary has been very constant for the past 6 years. I usually do 400-600 pages a week over the course of a year, and last year I made $89,000. I am a court reporter who is in high demand, and I have a very good reputation with the local attorneys.

What does a court reporter earn on average?

The average court reporter in New York gets paid between $2.75 and $3.50 a page, and makes between $40,000 and $100,000 a year working 5 days a week. A new reporter may only make about $30,000 in the first year, because you have to get used to the field and managing your time. It only goes up from there if you stick with it. Salary varies by region and the work you are doing. You also get paid more for more complicated work, like transcripts with medical terminology or expedited and daily transcripts.

What do you contribute to your high salary?

I work a lot of hours, and I put a lot of quality of time into my work. I never hand in a transcript with misspelled words. A lot of court reporters are sloppy and don't take pride in their work. I always know I'm going to see the attorneys I work with again, so if my work is sloppy, it would not only be embarrassing for me, but they may not ask me to come back.

How does the job affect your home life?

We don't usually start until 10 a.m., in contrast to normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs. I have a lot of down time, and I am often home by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. I get to do half of my job in the comfort of my home, which is really nice. Some days, I can make anywhere from $800 to $1,200 for one transcript. Every time an extra copy is ordered, I get paid an extra 50 cents per page. However, I do have a 3-4 hour commute every day, since I work in the city and I have to take the train and the subway often. I will usually sleep on the train going to work, and then proofread transcripts on the way home to make good use of my time.

How are you treated as a court reporter?

Sometimes you are very well respected. Attorneys know that if the court reporter isn't getting it, the transcript will turn out badly. Most attorneys show respect, are courteous and don't speak over each other, because they know you have to make a record of the proceeding. Being a court reporter infers a good reputation, and there is a little bit of prestige to it. It is a professional job and you do need to dress professionally. Some attorneys seem to think they are better then you, but you don't owe them anything but quality work, and you learn to deal with those types of people. You also earn respect from your agency over time. As a new court reporter, your agency proofreads your transcripts for 6 months to a year. After that, you are the only one who proofreads your work.

Do you get time off?

My hours depend on when offices are open. Once in a while, I have to do a night hearing, but that is rare. If I have a day off during the week, there are always transcripts to work on from other days. It is impossible to finish your work ever single day when you get home. I have weekends off, and I also take vacation time, but I don't get paid for it because I am a freelance court reporter. I try to take 2 weeks off every year, in addition to Jewish holidays and Christmas week, when the business is usually slow.

Are there more men or women in this field?

This is a woman-dominated field. The first court reporters were men, but eventually women took over the field. When I went to school, there were probably about two males out of 20 students total. I think that maybe it appears to be more of a secretarial job, but it's not.

What do you dislike about your job?

I hate traveling to the city. If I wanted to, I could work for the court so I could stay on Long Island, but then I wouldn't be a freelance court reporter, and I would be working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. I get a deduction on my taxes for anything related to the job, but I am always laying out the money in advance. Insurance isn't provided like it would be if you were working for the state or the government, but there is a court reporting organization called NCRA that offers insurance and a Freelancer's Union. I have to provide an IRA, 401(k), and a pension plan myself. I also have to pay my own income taxes every 3 months to the state, so I have to be really disciplined.

Are there any perks to your job?

Compared to a regular job, anything related to my job like transportation, meals, paper for my transcription machine and the machine itself, my laptop, Internet access, and my cell phone are all tax write-offs. Insurance is also a full write-off. I am also home a lot, and I have a lot of down time to spend with family.

Do you think the field is growing?

I think it has been consistent in the way of growth. I don't know if there are a lot of new reporters entering the field. I think a lot of people are reluctant to begin a court reporting career because there is a misconception that court reporters are going to be replaced by tape recorders and video recorders. They told me that when I went to school, but I am still working 11 years later. I doubt they will ever fully allow a tape recorder or voice recorder to replace a human ear.

How much job security is there?

There are definitely more jobs available in a large metropolitan area. There is not going to be as much work in a more secluded town. If I were to move to Florida, I wouldn't make as much as I do here in New York. You have to pass a new Notary Public exam for every state and different agencies have different policies.

What type of person would you recommend this job to?

I think it is good for someone who is young, just out of high school and planning to earn an associate's degree. It is also great for someone who wants to change careers and do something new, or for a single mom who wants to work 2 or 3 days a week and still make $1,000 a week. It doesn't just cater to a specific age group, but a little life experience and prior work in a different field or career definitely makes you a better court reporter. Before I became a court reporter, I worked at a bank. I also have a bachelor's degree, which I think helped with my job search.

Is there any basic knowledge you should have going into this field?

You need to be somewhat educated to be successful. There are a lot of uneducated people in the field right now because you didn't need to go to school to become a court reporter in the past. You need a basic knowledge of the legal field. You also need to know how to be professional, and be able to communicate with others in a professional manner.

What advice would you give to those interested in this field?

You can do very well in this field if you have a spouse or partner who can cover you with their medical insurance. You have to be really disciplined and follow a schedule to stay on top of the work. It is important to be professional, dress appropriately and learn how to speak to people. You always want to get to the job 20 minutes before it starts so you have plenty of time to set up. If you can find one agency that you like, you should stick with it. There is nothing better than being comfortable with the people you are working with. If you make them proud to have you represent them, they will give you a lot of work and you will be able to build good relationships with the attorneys who work with you. There is one office where the entire firm requests me, which is really nice.

What type of person is best for this job?

Someone who is dedicated and who has the willpower to really put in the time needed to get things done efficiently. This is especially important in school as you work to master the speed tests. In the real world, it is even harder to take the transcripts down, because people speak with different accents or have interpreters, etc. School will never fully prepare you for what you will experience in the field. Some prior life experience really helps you to deal with different situations that arise.

Is there anything you wish you had known before going into the field?

I would have liked to have known more medical terminology. It is almost like learning a foreign language, and if you don't use it often, you will forget it. I always pass up these jobs because they are so stressful, but I would get paid more for them if I chose to take them.

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