Court reporters play a vital role in our legal system, but in recent years our courts have run into a problem: there’s a shortage of certified stenographers available, especially relative to overall demand.
In fact, the number of working stenographers has shrunk by more than half since 2000, dropping from a peak of about 60,000 court reporters to fewer than 30,000 court stenographers in 2018. Meanwhile, while over 1,100 reporters retire each year, only about 200 new stenographers come aboard.
With the number of court reporters falling rapidly, experts are looking to technology to bridge the gap, but this needs to be done carefully. By paying attention to the history of the field, professionals can find better ways to meet the system’s needs without compromising on quality.
Evolving Transcription Norms
Traditionally, court reporters used a unique technique known as stenography, a form of structured shorthand that transcribes words as phonemes, rather than letters. Before computers, the technique was so widely used that it was even taught in high schools, as many women who went on to work as secretaries also used stenography in their work.
Over time, stenography went digital, so that court reporters used stenography machines with a compact keyboard of just 22 unmarked keys. This was a serious advancement, but yesterday’s court reporters are becoming today’s court technologists, demanding a much broader skillset.
Given the current shortage of court reporters and the widening array of tech tools at use in the courtroom, there are new options for dealing with necessary transcription tasks. For many, this means working with an outside court reporting service when in-house reporters are unavailable.
These outside agencies are able to bring together a greater number of court reporting professionals with the appropriate tools – tools like those needed for videoing depositions or creating and transmitting electronic documents. Additionally, many court reporters today also travel to address the demand for in-person transcription.
COVID’s Impact On Courts
Another factor that has influenced recent courtroom conditions and court reporting is the COVID-19 pandemic. Judges and lawyers met via Zoom, many non-urgent cases were put on hold, and recording quality was often poor.
This has raised concerns for court reporting agencies, who have worried about the increased possibility of inaccuracies, as well as the insurmountable caseload likely to be on the horizon. It’s also led many outside the field to suggest untenable solutions to the courts’ transcription needs.
Among the most common suggestions by non-experts today is that the role of court reporters could be taken over by speech recognition technology, but this is patently untrue. Court transcripts need to be precise and demand that both short-hand and multi-channel audio recordings be produced in real-time.
Court reporters may also be asked to read back from transcripts during court proceedings, among other tasks. While it may eventually be possible to create digital systems that can perform the tasks of a stenographer, it would need to be a highly specialized one and it does not yet exist.
Court reporting has a long, rich history; one that dates back centuries and has become increasingly formal and regulated, and it will need to continue evolving with the times.
In order to do so, we’ll need to increase new professional interest in the field while continuing to hone technology that can successfully support the completion of these tasks.