The O.J. Simpson trial recorded over 12,000 pages of transcripts that reporters waited by the courtroom door for each night. None of the information would have been recorded without the court reporter. A court reporter’s responsibility is to accurately record who says what and when at trials, during depositions, and any time someone feels words being spoken are important enough to hire an accurate transcriber. In a career that requires little emotional commitment for good pay, court reporters find their lives divided into two non-interlocking segments: work and other. “It is a good career to be able to do other things,” mentioned one court reporter/actor. Most professionals work through agencies that act as clearinghouses for able, certified court reporters.
Court reporting is a learnable skill requiring coordination, concentration, and study. Court reporters need strong grammatical skills and lots of patience. “Awareness is the most important thing about this career,” a fifteen-year court-reporting veteran told us. Frequently, the exact words you type in are crucial to the decision rendered in a given case. A court reporter is responsible for certifying that what has been entered, is, to the best of his abilities, an accurate representation of what took place before him. Unqualified court reporters usually lose all referrals with the first or second incident that arises from carelessness. Because of this high standard of performance and the natural isolation (only one court reporter is in the court room at any given time), significant pressures are placed on court reporters. Of the 25 percent who leave the profession between the first and second years, most cite “stress” as a major factor in their decision.
At its best, a reporter told us, “You go into a zone where you’re not concentrating anymore and the words are going straight from your ears through your fingers and onto your disk.” This near Zen-like experience was mentioned by several of our respondents as the most pleasant and rewarding of job features. At its worst, the career places not only mental demands but physical ones on people in the field. The incidence of repetitive motion disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, in this career is second only to those found in word-processing departments. For a court reporter, the inability to use her hands or fingers translates into an inability to work. Since most court reporters work as agents of a larger service, they are responsible for their own health care costs and bear the full burden of any work-precluding injuries. “I can’t even play touch football,” lamented one reporter new to the field, “I’m scared I’ll break a finger.” Since there is no true hierarchy in this profession, and therefore advancement is not an issue, little if any politics enter the daily routine.
Only about a third of the 300 schools and colleges that offer court reporting programs (either two or four years) are accredited by the National Court Reporters Association, one of whose requirements is to teach computer-aided transcription, so be careful which school you attend. If you can study on your own and pass the rigorous Court Reporting Exams, then a degree from one of these institutions is helpful, but not required. Some states demand that court reporters be notary publics, and others demand that they pass additional state-specific certification tests, such as the Certified Court Reporter (CCR) test or the Registered Professional Reporter (RPR) two-part exam. Specialization for such designations as medical transcriber and court transcriber may require additional training and sphere-specific certification. The requirements for employment by the federal government stipulate that court reporters transcribe at least 175 words per minute; private firms often require a minimum of 225 words per minute.
Court reporters often become medical transcribers after a further period of training. Many have word-processing backgrounds and return to word-processing pools, secretarial jobs, or assistant jobs after they leave. Nearly 70 percent remain in the field, however, choosing to pursue this lifestyle as either a well-paying profession requiring little weekend or evening work, or as a part-time position that pays well enough to pursue other career options, usually in the arts.