Another panicked 20-something coming your way...
March 29, 2012 4:42 PM   Subscribe

Is court reporting at all a viable career option in this day and age?

I am currently in court reporting school, and I've been hearing a lot of talk about voice recognition software replacing court reporters. I've already sunk a year and a half into school, and right now, I honestly cannot think of any other career I would be suited for, as I'm extremely introverted and have a highly variable speech impediment. (I'm training to be a machine reporter, not voice, which isn't an option for me.) Also, to note the positive reasons, I have great finger dexterity from years of playing piano and good vocabulary/grammar skills.

Sometimes, I have the crazy idea to go back to college for 2 years (I already have a bachelor's in psychology) and get a computer science degree, as software engineer jobs are plentiful where I live (though I also hear things about outsourcing...)

I hear from people that court may not be the best option right now, but there's still depositions, CART work, and broadcast captioning. As anyone who is familiar with the skill of shorthand knows, it is not like your average course of study where you finish the program based on a prescribed timeline, apply for jobs, and get hired. It can take years to reach the needed speed, and a lot of people drop out after getting stuck at a speed for months, and even years, on end.

A huge part of "getting through" school is persistence, faith, and optimism, and I have wavered more than a few times. If I know that there's work out there, however, I feel I will be able to keep my motivation up.

I just would like to know the truth about the future of the profession (even though no one can predict the future), especially in California... I've put time in now, but I'd rather waste 1.5 years than 2 or 3 or 5 years.

Thank you for any insight that can be provided; I cringe at the thought of hearing what may be harsh truths about the future of the profession, but if I need to jump ship, I'd rather do it sooner than later.
posted by shipsthatburn to Work & Money (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I was recently in court for jury duty, and one of the things the court reporter had to do was occasionally say something when she couldn't hear someone well enough (many of the prospective jurors mumbled a lot). It's hard to foresee software in the near future that recognizes many different voices and accents, can deal with people talking over each other and mumbling well enough to accurately transcribe them, and can speak up if something important is missed.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:27 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't speak specifically to court reporting, but I work in a similar field, and have to say that even though I've been hearing about voice rec replacing humans for years now, the technology just isn't ready yet. We use it extensively in my field, but it requires a lot of human editing to get a useful result. A single user who speaks extremely clearly and consistently may get away with using a program to generate usable text, but even then, you'd want the result to be proofread first. Introduce multiple speakers, and it just can't be done. (Take a look at Siri, or even Youtube's automatic captioning, to get an idea of how sucky the state of the art is.)
posted by mittens at 5:31 PM on March 29, 2012

My husband works at the cutting edge of voice recognition research. If VR products got to the level of replacing court reporting in 20 years, he says he'd be very very surprised.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:32 PM on March 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

I am not practicing in California, but in my jurisdiction there is no end of work for reporters. I attend 3 and sometimes more depositions per week, and there are tons of things that come up which require human interpretation. Lawyers talk over witnesses, witnesses with minimal English abandon their interpreters, and there are tons of proper nouns that the reporter figures out the spelling of either during breaks or upon editing the transcript.

I think you are in for an interesting and remunerative career. Don't give up!
posted by Pomo at 5:52 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The talk you've heard about "voice recognition software" is probably referring to JAVS, or a similar competing product if one exists. We use JAVS in some courts in Massachusetts. I am not aware of any court that relies on it exclusively, but we do have some courts that use it as default and/or backup. For example, a building might have 8 courtrooms and 3 court reporters working at any given time, and JAVS will be running for any hearings, etc. that are happening in the remaining courtrooms.

For trials in the Superior Court, in my experience, there is always a live court reporter in the room. I have seen District Court (state) trials where no court reporter was present; in the particular courthouse I'm thinking of, there is only an out-of-date audio recording "system" and JAVS would probably be a welcome and helpful upgrade.

I have also seen trials in Superior Court where a lot of money was at stake and multiple court reporters were present. The defendants hired their own. And that's probably the giveaway. Based on the transcripts I've seen (and I've seen quite a few), there isn't yet a better option than paying a professional, trained court reporter who does his/her own transcriptions to sit in the courtroom during proceedings. The money agrees with that conclusion. In such matters the money is usually right.

Which brings me to the asterisk: In the states where I'm licensed, the biggest threat to your job prospects isn't emerging technologies, it's our budgets. That District Court that I mentioned above? There's no money to outfit it with JAVS. There is no money to hire court reporters. They can't even afford to buy better microphones. The court reporters that I know earn every penny they make (mostly) but they aren't getting raises and their workload has increased. That's the direction I'd be looking, if I were in your shoes and worried about employment prospects.
posted by cribcage at 5:56 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I work as a legal assistant in California and have attended depositions, and there is no way that current voice recognition software is going to replace court reporters any time soon. You need an actual human to deal with less audible speech, people talking over each other, asking for clarification or spelling, reading back specific questions at the request of witnesses/lawyers, etc.

I can't speak as to the specific job prospects of court reporters in California, but I can assure you that they're not going to become obsolete any time soon.
posted by yasaman at 5:59 PM on March 29, 2012

Add to the above: Court reporting is more than just getting spoken words down on a paper transcript. It also involves giving an oath to the witness, and a human being who certifies that what has been typed is an accurate transcription of what was said. The law will not accept a machine for that.

There is going to be somewhat less of a demand for in-court reporters, with more courtrooms being wired for recording. But much "court reporting" is done in depositions, not in courtrooms, and it is hard to imagine eliminating the human being in that environment.

Another point: there are court reporters who use stenotype, and others that rely on recording the interchange. Learn stenotype. It is a true skill and is more flexible.
posted by yclipse at 6:05 PM on March 29, 2012

Lawyer here (and Dragon Naturally Speaking user). No way will voice recognition software replace court reporters anytime in the near future. The acoustics of courtrooms, the accents and different volume of people speaking, the various distances people would be from the microphone, the slang, the arcane terms, the misused and garbled words ... no, court reporters will be with us for a good long time.

(I mean, I love Dragon Naturally Speaking but it gets a lot wrong when I'm speaking slowly and clearly right into the mic.)
posted by jayder at 7:01 PM on March 29, 2012

Court reporters work in other arenas as well. Many professional organizations with a large membership and open business meetings use court reports both for record keeping and to create a live text feed of their proceedings for the hearing impaired. In fact, I know of one court reporter who just had to expand her personal practice by hiring an entire team to cover her work load.
posted by johnxlibris at 7:14 PM on March 29, 2012

I know three people who've recently gone down this career path. One is a transcriptionist who primarily works on those quarterly earnings calls that public companies put on for business reporters and industry analysts, one close captions live TV broadcasts, and the other is working mainly freelance deposition work for lawyers. Neither appear even vaguely worried about their career prospects at this time, and the very different focus of their work from what most people would imagine -- sitting in front of a judge in a courtroom -- suggests there's a diverse market for those skills.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:18 PM on March 29, 2012

I don't work in the legal system but I do deal with recordings of events that need to be transcribed. My field requires absolute verbatim accuracy and there's no voice recognition software out there that can even come close to what we need. I think your job is safe for the foreseeable future.
posted by fancypants at 7:23 PM on March 29, 2012

Note, though, that in Texas, tape or video recordings are starting to be used instead of a live court reporter in depositions, especially in lower cost litigation. That would be the worry, I'd think, not voice recognition software. The move (which I've seen predicted elsewhere) would be to just have the recording transcribed if necessary. This would, of course, hurt accuracy, as there would be no court reporter to note if he or she hasn't understood a word.

In Texas, the rules were changed to allow a deposition to be taken without a court reporter by video or recording -- a transcript can later be made of the tape if necessary. The court reporter organizations have fought against this, but I've seen it used more and more often over the past couple of years and am considering using this method myself in the future (as most depo transcripts never get used). It would basically save my client $1000 in reporter and transcript fees in depos where I don't expect to need a transcript.

I do think that you'll begin to see more courts use recordings as well in hearings (not in trials) where they'll just have a transcript made if requested -- in the vast majority of cases, a transcript is never needed, and getting rid of the need for a reporter in each courtroom during routine matters will cut costs, always a concern these days.
posted by seventyfour at 9:12 PM on March 29, 2012

We often record interviews where I work and, while we only get a transcript if we really need it, any increase in the use of voice recordings for legal purposes introduces an increase in the need for skilled people to transcribe the recording. Even if the volume of work in courtrooms and other venues for direct transcription drops, there'll still be lots and lots of work.
posted by dg at 12:03 AM on March 30, 2012

I used CART for 4 of my 5 years as an undergrad (I switched over to ASL interpreting at the end). Steno is far better than VR. Much more flexible, many more options for fitting your client's needs, etc. Mirabai Knight has talked a little about this; her blog is fantastic:
posted by spaceman_spiff at 5:36 AM on March 30, 2012

My experience has been the same as seventyfour; I haven't seen an increase in voice recognition taking away work from court reporters, but in a many cases (e.g. just about every misdemeanor hearing and trial), courts are switching to a recording system that can be turned over to a court reporter if we ever need a transcript. As others have said, reporters are still heavily used in other areas of the field.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:57 AM on March 30, 2012

I don't mean to be a downer, but 10 years ago you could have studied to be a medical transcriptionist. You'd learn all the medical jargon, then listen to doctors record notes about their patients and type them up in near-real time to enter into a medical records system.

Between better medical records systems that make it easy for doctors to enter their own notes, voice recognition systems, and (most importantly) the ability to send recordings to India to get transcribed for $1/hour, the entire field is dead now.

I don't think lawyers will ever do transcription themselves, but voice recognition that's good enough to transcribe 80% is a very real threat (since it's a relatively low-skilled job to fix the remaining 20%). And as soon as it becomes legal to have it done in India, it will happen. I can't think of anything special about court reporting that would keep it from this fate.
posted by miyabo at 11:15 AM on March 30, 2012

miyabo says: "I can't think of anything special about court reporting that would keep it from this fate."

As yclipse said: "Court reporting is more than just getting spoken words down on a paper transcript. It also involves giving an oath to the witness, and a human being who certifies that what has been typed is an accurate transcription of what was said. The law will not accept a machine for that. "
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:58 PM on March 30, 2012

Sorry to harp on this, but I think that many of the posters are incorrectly focusing on voice recognition as the threat to court reporting, and not the real threat, which is the increasing acceptance of nonstenographic recordings of depositions and court proceeds.

While traditionally most courtrooms have had a court reporter, and all depositions traditionally would have a court reporter in the room, that's changing. It isn't as if all hearings/depositions actually need a transcript -- most won't. So once recording of less significant depos becomes widespread, that's a lost court reporting assignment for each deposition recorded and not transcribed**. And once (as I suspect will soon be widespread), routine hearings are tape recorded and never transcribed unless requested, that'll equal fewer court reporters in the courtroom.

There'll still be a need for court reporters, just not as great of a need. But as more depositions and hearings start to be recorded, and not transcribed unless needed, there will necessarily be less work. And, at least from my perspective, I wouldn't be surprised if, ten years from now, 50% of the depositions in Texas are recorded w/o a court reporter, and that getting a live court reporter in a Texas courtroom will be a matter of special request (with a recording being the norm). I'm not at all saying that's a good thing, but it is an overt trend, at least where I practice.

[A caveat that I don't know the deposition rules of other states, but I would be very surprised if at least some of the states weren't also moving always from generally requiring a court reporter.]

** Note that, under the Texas Rules (Rule 199), you do not need a court reporter to give the oath before a deposition -- just someone authorized by law -- for example, a notary who you pull into the deposition for 2 minutes. Further, the rule regarding nonstenographic recordings (Rule 203.6) doesn't even require that the transcript (if any) be made by a court reporter -- requirement that a court reporter do the work is only on "good cause shown." 203.6 is not a court reporter friendly rule. It is also a relatively old rule, first adopted effective 1999, but I never saw anyone use it in my practice before 2008.
posted by seventyfour at 2:52 PM on March 30, 2012

As yclipse said...

Note that different jurisdictions vary. In Massachusetts, for instance, court reporters do not swear-in witnesses (in any courtroom I've ever seen), but apparently they do in Yclipse's jurisdiction. This is an example of why blanket statements about practice can put you in the weeds. There can be a fair degree of variation.
posted by cribcage at 8:28 AM on April 1, 2012

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