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Hanging Out with America's Elite, Underappreciated Court Reporters

Stenography is a potentially lucrative, female-dominated profession that appears to be disappearing—and no one seems to care.

Gavin Jenkins

National Court Reporters Association President Stephen Zinone (right), with the assistance of several students, breaks the Guinness World Record for most Post-it notes stuck to a person in five minutes. It wasn't entirely clear what this had to do with court reporting or stenography. All photos by the author

Jen Oliver ran down the hallway double-fisting cups of water. It was day three of the National Court Reporters Association's (NCRA) annual convention, and we were late for Mirabai Knight's seminar. This was the speaker Jen had traveled from Kansas to see, and I was politely ordered to, "Hurry, hurry, hurry!"

Jen wore high heels, and the faster she moved, the louder she stomped on the New York Hilton Midtown's carpet. Her blue eyes were focused on the water as it sloshed around.

"People pay good money to hear Mirabai speak," Jen said. "She's a living legend."

When I think of living legends, I picture someone like astronaut Buzz Aldrin, not Mirabai, a Computer-Assisted Realtime (CART) provider who transcribes lectures and meetings for hearing-impaired college students and professionals. Of course, this is what happens at trade conventions: Leaders of a specific field are treated as if they've walked on the moon. And don't get me wrong—Mirabai deserves admiration. She's 34, earns over $100,000 a year, and co-founded the Open Steno Project, an organization that's trying to attract a wider base of stenographers to the profession through free software and cheaper equipment. But the seminar's Q&A session, which Mirabai transcribed onto a screen, got a little awkward when one woman gushed, "I want to be you."

Minutes later, another woman proposed.

The NCRA has other bonafide rock stars, like speed champion Ed Varallo, the Frazier family (Tammy, along with sons Chase and Clay), and international freelancer Lisa Knight (no relation to Mirabai). July's convention was a crucial event for them, as it was the first national gathering since a study was released predicting the country will have 5,500 court reporter vacancies by 2018. This is a lucrative, female-dominated profession that's disappearing, and no one seems to care. The majority of millennials who are interested in the long hours and thankless work that this career entails don't appear to be good enough to fill these spots. And so the NCRA's leadership called upon their elite to encourage court reporters like Jen to keep up with new technology, earn more certifications, and "get the word out" about the less-than-sexy profession.

The hope was to also inspire the students in attendance to practice harder and never quit. After all, stenography schools have a staggering 85 percent dropout rate.

It was a lot of responsibility, but the call to action gave Mirabai an excuse to nerd out and make new friends. She set up an Open Steno Project booth among the convention's vendors and sat there for four days talking to people about ways to improve accuracy, the best software to use, and the Stenosaurus—a steno machine made of bamboo for which her company is launching a crowdfunding campaign next month.Raised by hippies in Missoula, Montana, Mirabai was named after a 16th-century Rajasthan poet. She has short, brown hair and wears all black clothes. Not exactly the stereotypical stenographer—or at least that's what I would have thought a few months ago.

Steno historian Don Tursi interviews Mirabai Knight during a keynote panel discussion at the NCRA annual convention in New York

After learning about the 5,500 vacancies, I visited the Pennsylvania Court Reporters Association's annual convention in April. I expected to hear stories about courtroom drama, arrogant lawyers, and horrifying murders. There was definitely some of that, but my biggest takeaway was how underappreciated this group of professionals feel. I have to admit, prior to that weekend, if I had been asked to describe a court reporter, I would have envisioned a woman sitting up straight, wearing a business suit with shoulder pads, her hair pulled back tightly into a bun. Conversely, this is how many people in the industry fear the world sees them. The absurd stereotype persists for two reasons: The profession is about 90 percent female, and women ascended within it in the mid-1980s, when shoulder pads and buns were somewhat more popular than they are now. Before that, men had dominated the field since at least 63 BC, when Marcus Tullius Cicero taught his slave Tiro how to write down everything he said in front of the Roman Senate using shorthand. I know this because the following joke was run into the ground at the NCRA convention: "Court reporting is the second oldest profession."

I've heard some theories as to why women took over the field: good money, the chance to work inside a courtroom before law firm doors had fully or even mostly opened, people urging them into it because the work seemed secretarial. Whatever the reason, an entire generation of women seems to have dived right in, and the impending shortage is due to the high dropout rate, combined with retirement. The average age of a court reporter is 46, and what this generation has done is amazing.

Women have expanded stenography into three main categories. First, there's your official court reporter—this is the stereotype. Think Jen. She transcribes criminal cases in the Saline County courthouse, in Salina, Kansas, and lives comfortably. (The average income for an official court reporter is $46,000, and that should probably be higher.) After sitting in court all day, the fun begins: transcribing and editing transcripts. Jen works between 50 and 60 hours each week. She's 45 and has been a court reporter for almost 20 years. This was her first NCRA convention, and her second trip to New York. We met at the registration table, where there was a stack of free, church-style cookbooks.

Jen Oliver, an official court reporter in Salina, Kansas, shows off her name badge and tags of certifications after registering at the NCRA's annual convention.

Jen turned to me and, joking-not-joking, asked, "Is it safe to walk around here at night? I don't want to get kidnapped or mugged."

Next come caption providers, including CART providers, like Mirabai. And then there are broadcast closed caption providers like Anissa Nierenberger, who helps hearing-impaired Phoenix Suns fans know what the TV announcers are saying from her home in Michigan. Of course, we as a nation tend to make fun of these people. We've all been there, running on a treadmill, reading CNN, and an outrageous mistake appears in the captioning. Providers need over 98 percent accuracy to land the job, and they hate being taken for granted. At both conventions, I heard about the caption providers who worked for over 24 hours on September 11, 2001. But I also listened to court reporters laugh about mishaps where "pennies" accidentally appeared as "penises."

Finally, there are freelancers, including young ones fresh out of stenography school who are working to build their resumes, and veterans who don't want to be bound by a courthouse. Lisa Knight is the latter, and she estimated that there are about 50 freelancers who, like her, travel the world working for America's biggest law firms. An elite freelancer can earn half a million dollars if they bust their ass, and realtime experience is what sets them apart from the rest of the profession.

Realtime is the general term for software that translates shorthand code from a steno machine and displays it instantly on a computer or tablet screen. There are a bevy of different certifications in the field, and Annemarie Roketenetz, NCRA assistant director of communications, broke down the basics for me. Realtime certification demands 96 percent accuracy at 200 Words per Minute (WPM); however, most realtime reporters are writing at speeds well over 300 WPM with an accuracy of 99 percent or higher, according to Lisa and others I spoke with at the convention. Requirements for regular stenographers vary in each state, but according to NCRA standards, a certified court reporter needs to be 95 percent accurate for three five-minute tests: literary (180 WPM), jury charge (200), and testimony (225). The Certified Realtime Reporter (CRR) test is 200 WPM across the board. With those demands, that 1 percent jump in accuracy can seem like the difference between the major and minor leagues.

Sometimes freelancers have to sell law firms on realtime. At the NCRA convention, Lisa told an audience that if two parties at a deposition decline the software, she'll set up tablets on their tables anyway and show them what they're missing for an hour. When she removes the tablets, the attorneys usually break. It sounds easy, but realtime involves more prep work: Every steno machine has a dictionary that matches shorthand keystrokes to certain words. In order to have an instant translation, a realtime reporter needs to program every word they're going to hear. For example, if a court reporter is working a deposition involving Novartis Pharmaceuticals' new psoriasis medicine Cosentyx, which everyone knows is just a secukinumab injection, both of those made-up words should be in their dictionary. Depending on the case, adding new words to a steno dictionary can take hours. Realtime freelancers also hire scopists, who check for missing words and grammar mistakes, and proofreaders, who double check after the scopists are finished. Hiring extra eyes, along with the prep work, equipment, and experience, really adds to the final bill.

The NCRA's realtime speed competition was held on the first day of the convention. I sat with Mirabai at the Open Steno Project booth an hour before it started, and she checked the time every few minutes. Mirabai knew she wouldn't win, and she didn't (Douglas Zweizig, a court reporter from Maryland, dominated every category), but competing made her nervous. We talked about her life to take her mind off the competition. Mirabai met her wife online and chose moving to New York to begin dating her over serving in the Peace Corps. She was planning on getting a master's degree in English literature when she just happened to Google "stenography" and read about CRC on Wikipedia.

"I was like, 'I'm not going to pay to get a degree in English literature when I can sit in on 50 different subjects, learn a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and help someone else get an education in the process.'"

Mirabai transcribed our conversation using realtime—warm-up for the competition. At first it was cute, but it became distracting. She was looking into my eyes and typing, while everything we said appeared on a computer screen. After a few minutes, I asked her to stop, and she wrote, "Can you please stop? ... No, seriously, please."

Then she raised her hands and grinned.

That weekend, the Associated Press published a story about how Illinois's courtrooms are in such dire need of court reporters that many of its counties are turning to electronic recording devices. Some think this is the beginning of the end for the entire field, but Mirabai laughed off the notion that her profession could become obsolete.

"The one case in which voice recognition could supersede us," she said, "is if the singularity happens and machines become as intelligent as humans, but then a lot of people are going to be out of a job."

Recording devices have become a popular way for states save money, but they're not as reliable as humans. Colorado, Ohio, Florida, and New Jersey have each experienced electronic malfunctions or inaudible tape, which can have real consequences. In 2013, a Kentucky judge declared a mistrial in a murder case against Patrick Deon Ragland—who was later found guilty of manslaughter for beating someone to death with a frying pan—after a courtroom malfunction. However, if those projected 5,500 openings aren't filled, the jobs will probably be outsourced or given to machines, despite their inadequacy.

A stenograph machine

Mirabai has never stepped inside a courtroom—not once. It's easy for her to be confident about robots, but it's different for official court reporters in sparsely populated states, like Jen in Kansas. She doesn't know a single official court reporter who isn't afraid of being replaced by a machine. I went to Sky Room in Times Square with Jen and a gaggle of middle-aged official court reporters from Kansas and Oklahoma. They took group pictures with the night skyline behind them, and each could rattle off ways they're superior to digital recorders: they can understand accents, colloquialism, and specialized terminology (like secukinumab); they can tell witnesses to speak up, and they can stop the proceeding if the crosstalk becomes too intense.

Jen seemed to be the leader of the group. She has long blonde hair, a robust laugh, and sat in the back of every seminar, except Mirabai's. One morning, I found her sitting alone in a lecture titled, "Drones—What's New." She was one of six people in the room and couldn't explain what drones had to do with court reporting. She was playing on her phone, mad that the "Terminate Transcript Turmoil" event didn't have any remaining chairs.

We walked down to the Hilton's lobby and sat on a bench, where she showed me pictures from her sightseeing adventure. She bragged about going alone to Madison Square Garden, the Empire State Building, and the 9/11 Memorial. She rode the Staten Island Ferry, saw the Statue of Liberty, and snapped a picture of every American flag along the way. Patriotism has been an underlying theme to both court reporter conventions I've attended—the Pennsylvania convention had two seminars on Flight 93 because so many of the state's court reporters had volunteered to transcribe the memorial's oral history project.

Jen can be a bit goofy, but she became serious talking about the American flag. Her father is a Vietnam Veteran who earned a Purple Heart, but an old wound forced doctors to amputate his arm 41 years after he returned from combat. She has three daughters (and her oldest recently joined the Army), but Jen considers court reporting to be service work of its own, and sees herself as a guardian of legal transcripts. The pride she has for her job amplifies the fear of a machine taking it away. It forced her to think of ways to expand her skillset.

First, she earned a certified realtime reporter certification, and then, as she began thinking about getting a CART certification, like Mirabai, a hearing-impaired defendant who didn't know sign language appeared in her courtroom this spring.

"A digital recorder wouldn't have helped him in the courtroom at all," Jen said. "I realtime everything now, so he came up and sat next to me so the judge could communicate with him. It worked famously, and it was one of the most personally rewarding experiences I've ever had."

Mirabai knows that feeling well, and she doesn't mind being one of the profession's poster children if it means filling those vacancies. Her father in Montana is hearing-impaired; he was a repairman whose ears took a beating as he fixed the sound on a TV 30 years ago, and now, at age 88, he refuses to let Mirabai caption for him, which makes communicating from New York frustrating. Sometimes, she takes jobs with the hearing impaired on her days off because she can't stand to let people who want assistance go without service.

But even though she's comfortable being a leader, Mirabai rolled her eyes when I mentioned the word "legend." She thinks the attention is simple: She's enthusiastic about being a steno geek, and people feed off that energy.

The topic of geekdom brought Mirabai and I back to the glaring dropout rate. There's more to this job than typing fast: A student must possess an excellent vocabulary, incredible speech processing skills, eye-hand coordination, and the determination to give up a couple years to practice. Mirabai logged 50 to 60 hours a week when she first started, and she knows it's a touchy subject. Still, steno schools aren't attracting the best students.

"Trade schools don't have admission requirements," Mirabai said. "They can say something that's truthful, like stenography is a $100,000-a-year career, without advertising that 85 percent of steno students drop out. And so a lot of the students who get into the trade schools don't have all the information, they don't have the baseline literacy skills, and they're not the ones who are best equipped to succeed in the career. And conversely, people who are extremely smart and good at musical instruments and video games—the kinds of things that go along with skill in steno—they look at that 85 percent, and the reputations of trade schools, and they think, 'I have other options. I should go into a surer bet.'"

On day two of the convention, the attendees were invited to the Hilton's East Penthouse for a party with the NCRA's board of directors. This was Lucille Ball's apartment in the 1960s, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. The message: work hard and you will be successful. The party reinforced what Victoria Zelaya already knew. Born in Honduras before moving to Atlanta, Zelaya's mom cleaned a court reporter's house when she was young. Now 23, she's in stenography school and wants to lift her family into the middle class after graduating.

Meanwhile, she's frustrated. It takes most students at least three years to graduate. Victoria is in her third year and plateaued on 180 WPMs for the past two quarters. She has to reach 225.

"There have been times, sometimes weekly, where I've thought about quitting," she said. Victoria set her coffee on the marble table in front of us. Her phone was on her denim skirt lap, and it seemed like everyone had taken pictures of Central Park. "But the convention is motivating me," Victoria added.

The President's Party was held on the convention's last night. It was "Broadway themed," and there were a lot of tuxedos and gowns. But some people looked as if they were watching the ball drop in Times Square. A few women were dressed like flappers, and one came as the Wicked Witch, green makeup and all. After dinner, NCRA President Stephen Zinone took the stage and assured the audience, "If we stick together, we can accomplish anything."

Raging at the last night of the convention

I sat at the Kansas-Oklahoma table next to Jen. She wore a black strapless dress with white frills around her shoulders. "The '90s called, and they asked me for their prom dress back," she said. Music began to play, and after a few songs, Jen stomped her foot. "I want country!"

The table's conversation turned to certifications. Jen talked about getting her certified realtime reporter exam results in the mail. That letter was proof: she's faster than she needs to be at the Saline County courthouse, and could travel the world as a freelancer if she wanted to. Her oldest daughter had read her the results.

"She was like, 'Mom, you rock.' It was one of the most rewarding..."

Jen was too choked up to finish the thought. Her eyes had filled with tears.

"You know, as a parent, you're always proud of them, and they're never proud of you."

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