Schools try to address court reporter shortage
BY NICK SWEDBERG Correspondent August 10, 2014 3:14PM
A student in MacCormac College's court reporting program sits in front of the machines used for recording what is said in court. | Photo courtesy of MacCormac College
Updated: September 17, 2014 11:04AM
Although they record rulings and testimony that a jury later might need repeated to decide a case, court reporters are rarely noticed.
Occasionally in a television courtroom drama, a judge might ask the court reporter to “read that last part back.” And then the court reporter dutifully returns to typing away on an odd-shaped keyboard to record whatever is said during the legal proceeding.
Overlooked is that the job requires a mix of a highly-skilled typist and eagle-eyed perfectionist. And industry insiders say a shortage of such qualified professionals is looming.
Rhonda Jensen, who started her own court reporting business 30 years ago, said reporters play a vital role in the legal system. They serve as careful recorders of depositions and testimony through legal proceedings at all levels.
Despite lucrative prospects for trained court reporters, the shortage could loom over the next several years. Jensen believes the newer generation isn’t picking up the reins.
“I just don’t think kids are aware of court reporting to even consider it as a career,” Jensen said.
To help, the College of Court Reporting in Hobart, Indiana, is cutting tuition in half for students who attend the school onsite full time. Beginning with the fall semester, the college will cut its tuition rate from $350 per credit hour to $175 for local students, it said in a press release.
Over the next 15 years, the state of Illinois has estimated it will need to hire almost 400 new court reporters, as about 75 percent of its staff is retiring, according to the college.
Trained court reporters often receive multiple job offers after just two years of study, and can earn more than $100,000 a year starting out, according to one Chicago college.
It isn’t the easiest job in the world. While it offers flexible hours — court reporters often create their own schedules — workers can be called on to work through the night to meet the needs of a client. The subject matter covered in legal proceedings also can wear on a court reporter, said Jensen, whose Jensen Litigation Solutions in Chicago employs dozens of staffers.
“We’ve all been on those jobs where you really have to fight back tears,” said Jensen, of Schaumburg, and originally from Lansing.
In Illinois, court reporters are required to be certified to prove they can type at least 220 words a minute with 95 percent accuracy and have to take several additional tests, Jensen said. They also need to recertify annually.
Accredited court reporting schools prepare students with classes on how to use the special dictation machines, which use sets of keys to spell out words phonetically, and how to decipher and transcribe into English the almost entirely different “language” in which the machines record. They also take classes that teach the complicated terminology used by doctors and attorneys and go through rigorous English grammar courses.
“If you’re not strong at that,” Jensen said, “you really shouldn’t even consider going into court reporting.”
Jensen worked on her own for about two years before she bought a fellow court reporter’s business. After 30 years, Jensen employs numerous employees who provide support services in litigation.
But there’s a supply problem in the industry. And even if more students were to enter the programs, the number of court reporting schools is dwindling.
“There’s not very many schools left across the country that have that training and expertise to teach people how to do it,” said Travis Akin, who does public relations for MacCormac College in Chicago.
Yet the demand is continuing to grow. Over the next five years, 5,000 more court reporters are going to be needed as older professionals retire and expectations on broadcast media increase, said Marnelle Alexis Stephens, president of MacCormac College.
Enrollment is still open for the upcoming school year in the college’s court reporting program, she said.
Illinois has the third-largest shortage of court reporters, behind California and Texas and followed by New York, Alexis Stephens said. In some states, such as South Carolina, criminal proceedings have to be delayed because of a lack of court reporters to record the proceedings.
Students coming out of the school’s program have a 100 job placement rate and are usually recruited by court reporting firms even before they graduate, Alexis Stephens said.
Court reporters who pursue additional certification also can specialize in closed captioning for the hearing-impaired.
While dictation software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking exists, it fails to compete with what trained court reporters can do, Alexis Stephens said. She doubts that within her lifetime technology will replace transcribing professionals, since software cannot yet distinguish between multiple dialects to separate voices when more than one person is talking.
Thus, the prospects look good for court reporters for the feasible future. But a leap in technology could impact the profession, according to Greg Lawrence, dean of student development at South Suburban College. Even so, Lawrence said he expects the need for new court reporters will continue in the coming years.
“Even if the technology explodes, there’s still going to be a need for people that have that skill,” Lawrence said.
Reporters also can be called on to work with clients who need them to record civil proceedings or depositions outside of a courtroom. Some with more specialized training might work with broadcast companies or video production to provide real-time captioning of programs.