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The Court Reporting Shortage: How Reporters and Technology Can Help Each Other

It’s no secret that there aren’t enough court reporters to keep up with the volume of depositions and trials. The court reporting profession has seen its ranks thin by two-thirds since peaking in the late 20th century, according to Law Technology Today, leaving a shortage of nearly 12,000 reporters.

And with more court reporters reaching retirement age every day — according to a 2013 study, 70 percent of respondent stenographers at that time were 46 years or older — the shortage is growing. According to the Speech to Text Institute, only 1 in 10 court reporting students graduate, contributing to an annual net loss of at least 900 court reporters: 1,120 stenographers retire with only 200 students starting in the profession each year.

It’s likely that we’ll never see enough students entering stenography school to reverse this shortage.

So to solve the problem, we need to get creative: How can technology support the human talent that’s spread too thin? We’ve already seen how the COVID-19 pandemic forced proceedings online, which in turn increased court reporters’ capacity by allowing them to work remotely. But we need to expand that capacity even more to keep up with demand.

Reciprocity: The Key to More Remote Work

The shift to remote depositions during the pandemic gave court reporters more hours to work. With no commutes from home to conference rooms spread across major cities and regions, stenographers reclaimed time that they could choose to take more jobs.

But while remote work helped increase capacity, rules and regulations regarding stenographer certification put a cap on efficiency. If a certified court reporter in Texas, for example, could take a remote deposition anywhere in the state, why couldn’t they take one in Illinois, or California, or New York, other states with some of the highest volumes of litigation?

In most cases, court reporters who are certified in one state still need to pass some sort of exam to be permitted to work as stenographers in other states. Offering reciprocity to all certified court reporters will allow stenographers in low-volume litigation states the opportunity to work remotely in high-volume jurisdictions, helping expand capacity.

AI and Video: Alternatives to Live Transcription

Besides increasing the capacity of the current court reporting workforce, alternatives to live transcriptionists can ameliorate the concern. if utilized effectively.

The emergence of AI and technology can never replace court reporters’ skill and professionalism. But while highly skilled humans are necessary, there simply aren’t enough to staff every proceeding.

While some states such as Kentucky, Indiana and Florida have moved to digital court reporting, allowing video or audio recordings of proceedings to serve as the official record, a hybrid approach could also increase court reporter capacity.

For example, some depositions can be recorded, with a neutral third-party observer as facilitator, and an AI-powered voice-to-text transcription can be produced in real time or after the fact for the benefit of the parties. If needed for evidence, a court reporter can be contracted to provide a certified transcript, or review an AI-generated transcript.

Court Reporters and Rules Still Needed

Digital court reporting records provide benefits that in-person stenographers can’t, such as the ability to play back answers to look at the facial expression of a witness, for example. But court reporters have their own unique abilities; they can read back witness answers in real time in the event an unclear answer needs to be verified, whereas replaying video of an answer isn’t as instantaneous.

Digital and electronic reporting have other drawbacks. For instance, court reporters will stop a proceeding if parties are talking over each other and then transcribe responses one at a time. If the third-party observer doesn’t – or isn’t given the duty to – stop cross-talk, a video replay won’t produce an accurate transcript. And even if there is a clear electronic record such as audio or video, meaning none of the witnesses mumbled answers, or if they did, they were asked to repeat themselves clearly, professionals are still needed to accurately transcribe in a timely manner.

Some states also allow voice writing, in which a court reporter dictates every word through a noise-canceling mask. California recently passed a law allowing the state court reporting board to license voice writers, holding them to the same standard required of stenographers to obtain a Certified Shorthand Reporter license. While the voice writing test may be a slightly lower bar to clear than a stenography exam, helping ease the shortage, certified stenographers provide an irreplaceable value.

The Future of Court Reporting

Given the shortage of court reporters, even if stenographer bandwidth is increased, technology is unlikely to wholly replace court reporters. Court reporters can embrace technology to increase their work capacity – and their ability to make more money, especially in freelance, through remote work. In closing, while technology will continue to evolve and improve AI-powered transcription services, and video reporting may work in certain situations, court reporters are still vital for maintaining the records of depositions and trials.

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