Demand for court reporters is outpacing supply.
The situation is expected to only get worse as current professionals retire. Estimates in an independent study by Ducker Worldwide call for a national shortage of 5,500 court reporters by 2018, compared with about 32,000 people now working in the field. That includes at least 100 openings in Indiana, where about 450 are working in the field.
"It’s just an overlooked career," Tonya Kaiser said of the profession that takes about three years of training. "Everyone is pushing for a four-year degree."
Kaiser, owner of Summit City Reporting, is a certified court reporter who transcribes clients’ depositions about dog bites, car accidents, medical malpractice allegations, patent infringement and other commercial claims.
Local, state and federal courts rely on court reporters to accurately capture witness testimony. Live television broadcasts employ the professionals to produce closed captioning.
And as more accommodations are being made in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools, theaters and others are providing simultaneous translations that allow the hearing impaired to participate in discussions and follow presentations.
As president of the Indiana Shorthand Reporters Association, Kaiser has a broad view of the profession. The statewide organization will be renamed the Indiana Court Reporters Association after its annual convention Friday through Sept. 20 at Grand Wayne Center.
About 65 people are expected to attend the three-day event that will feature software training and speakers coming in from across the country addressing issues including ethics. About five local members are registered to attend.
Editing at night
Kaiser, a self-described perfectionist, contracts with independent court reporters and videographers, as needed to keep up with demand. She’d like at least a couple more to call on but can’t find them.
Almost all of the work is depositions – or sworn statements used in court. Like most other court reporters, Kaiser is also a notary public, capable of swearing in people who are going to give a statement.
Tom Kimbrough, a trial attorney and partner in Barrett & McNagny, uses court reporters to take depositions about three times a week. His firm, which has 10 trial lawyers, has established relationships with court reporting firms around the state.
The volume of business Barrett & McNagny generates typically allows the law firm to schedule court reporters when it needs them.
"That does not mean they’re not scrambling" to honor all their client commitments, Kimbrough said.
Some court reporters work full time in a courtroom. Their schedules are at the mercy of the judges and the court.
Others, including Kaiser, are freelance, doing jobs for attorneys, such as Kimbrough. Her schedule is much more flexible, but still not entirely her own.
"You may have plans in the evening and the attorney decides to plow through until 7 o’clock to finish a deposition. That does happen," she said. "It’s not like you’re in a 9-to-5 office."
Some mothers embrace the flexible schedule of a freelancer, choosing to edit transcripts during the day while the kids are in school or at night after they have gone to bed. Court reporters are predominantly female – about 90 percent.
The pay, which averages more than $48,000 a year, is great for people without bachelor’s degrees, Kaiser said.
"There are court reporters who make more than the judges they work for," she added.
Pros and cons
Certain traits set people up to excel as court reporters.
The profession requires good hearing and the ability to sit for long periods. Good grammar is crucial. Court reporters need to know the difference between "affect" and "effect," for example.
Promising candidates have good time-management skills, professional attitude and appearance, and stay up-to-date with technology, Kaiser said. They need to become comfortable with medical and legal terms, which often come up in lawsuits.
People who know how to play the piano usually catch on quickly, she said.
Like with all jobs, there are downsides.
The work can take a physical toll. Back and neck pain are common among court reporters. Carpal tunnel syndrome is also a common problem in the industry, though some new machines are more ergonomically designed to help alleviate that lower arm pain.
Developing the necessary speed also takes tons of practice – at least three dedicated hours a day, five or six days a week.
"You definitely have to be committed to this and have strong self-motivation," said Jay Vettickal, executive director of the College of Court Reporting, an independent institution in Hobart, in northwest Indiana.
Also, classes and equipment aren’t cheap.
The only school in Indiana, the College of Court Reporting, charges $13,500 a year in tuition for full-time students. Most full-time students complete the year-round program in three years, Vettickal said.
Court reporters also have to buy their own steno writers, which range from $3,000 to $4,500. In addition, they need to invest in a laptop computer and the necessary software to make them work together.
Total costs average $35,000, including equipment, Vettickal said.
Like a lot of other court reporting schools, the Hobart college offers online courses, allowing students to learn at night if they have child-care responsibilities or they’re already employed and want to change professions. Of about 240 students enrolled there, only 15 are studying on-site. The rest are online.
Job openings for people with stenography skills are varied.
When a court proceeding is televised, for example, a court reporter types what everyone says into a steno machine hooked up to a laptop computer. Software translates the signals into English in real time. That allows viewers to read the testimony scrolling across the bottom of the screen as it happens.
Closed captioning is done for political speeches, ballgames and various other live events. Each translation from spoken to written language involves a stenographer – sometimes with humorous results. Some of the more amusing flubs will be included in one of the sessions scheduled for this weekend’s convention.
Technology also helps hearing-impaired people more fully participate in events they attend, Kaiser said.
Communication-access, real-time translation, or CART, providers assist in classrooms, churches, board meetings, doctor appointments and other situations. The hearing-impaired person can read a transcription on a computer screen to keep up with what’s happening.
Vettickal said about 90 percent of his school’s students are placed in jobs after graduation.
"It’s a great (career) opportunity for prospective students to look at if they have that drive," he said. "It’s not instant gratification. They have to want to do it."