The nationwide court reporter shortage has drummed up a contentious debate in the legal industry over how big a problem it is.
Over the past few decades, the number of court reporters across the country has been in decline, threatening a key foundation of the U.S. court system and making it more difficult for legal matters to go through.
Some stenographers, who use steno machines to take notes manually during court hearings and depositions, don't see the situation as dire as those who support digital reporters, who record testimony with audio equipment and use technology to translate that audio into text.
Proponents of digital reporting also generally support voice reporting, which is when a court reporter voices testimony into an audio recorder.
Jim Cudahy, the executive director of the nonprofit Speech to Text Institute, or STTI, told Law360 Pulse that this shortage of available court reporters has been building up for decades.
"Is the shortage real? Yeah, there's no question," Cudahy said. "If you talk to court reporting firms about the struggle to find stenographers, to fill their calendars, you can see it with the continual closing of court reporting schools."
The National Court Reporting Association, or NCRA, commissioned market researcher Ducker Worldwide in 2014 to develop a court reporting industry outlook known in the sector as the Ducker report.
The report said there were about 32,000 stenographic court reporters in the United States in 2013. However, the STTI has said the count could shrink to 23,100 by 2023.
Cudahy, who was the executive director of the NCRA when the report was published, says there is now a shortage of about 9,000 stenographers based on current demands.
But some stenographers disagree with that assessment.
Debbie Dibble, president of the NCRA, told Law360 Pulse in an email that claims of a reporter shortage are sometimes "a bit hyperbolic."
"There are absolutely regions around the country, specifically in states with more stringent certification requirements, where there is a labor deficit created by the high bar, which must be cleared to practice as a stenographer," Dibble said. "In other areas, the supply of reporters is approaching parity with the demand for our services."
Dineen Squillante, a stenographer in Vermont, echoed Dibble, telling Law360 Pulse that the availability of stenographers depends on what part of the country you're in.
"The shortage itself I feel is being exaggerated by other players in the field that are trying to jump into this industry and bury stenographers because they have a business plan that doesn't involve stenographers," Squillante said.
She said she is referring to technology companies and people from upper management that have come from the stenography field who are trying to promote digital reporting businesses.
"They're almost making the shortage situation sound worse than it really is," Squillante said.
Cudahy, of the STTI, disagreed, saying it is "utterly false" that digital reporting companies are exaggerating the shortage; he said that instead the shortage is the reason court reporting agencies are pursuing digital reporting.
The STTI says on its website that it supports both stenographers and digital reporting. But some stenographers say the STTI is more closely aligned with the digital reporting companies. Cudahy says the STTI is not an anti-stenographer organization but rather sees both practices as a single industry.
Steno School Can't Fill Demand
At the heart of the court reporter shortage is the industry's pipeline problem.
Patricia Falls, a New Jersey stenographer who has been teaching the craft for years, told Law360 Pulse that many students drop out of stenographer school because they cannot achieve the necessary writing skills of 225 words per minute.
"There's just not enough people that had the wherewithal and the stamina to stick it out for two, three, four years to get there," Falls said. "That has resulted in such a shortage that not enough people are enrolling in school."
Falls said that years ago there were more than 250 people at a time sitting for the stenographer certification test. Today, she said that maybe there's only two people at a time taking the test.
Fewer than 1 in 10 students who enter stenography school become court reporters, according to the STTI.
"With the shortage at about 9,000 nationally, that means you would have to recruit 90,000 stenography students to produce 9,000 court reporters," Cudahy said. "The latest available numbers are that the total enrollment nationally is lower than 2,500."
At the other end, older stenographers are retiring. The STTI estimates that 1,120 stenographers retire each year and the number of new stenographers is about 200. This results in a gap of 920 stenographers each year.
But Dibble said this is more about a fluctuation of available stenographers in certain areas due to factors such as not publicizing the career to get new reporters and restrictive licensing requirements in some states.
"There is also an inefficient distribution of resources in many areas where multiple stenographers are engaged to handle short matters in the same jurisdiction," Dibble said. "This means many capable providers of services are sitting in one room rather than one qualified individual covering that location and mobilizing the coverage of other assignments."
Court Reporting Goes Digital
Digital reporting involves recording equipment placed around a courtroom to capture high-quality audio from a hearing. The audio recording is then transcribed by software.
It is different from a stenographer, who uses a manual stenotype machine to quickly create a written transcript.
Digital reporting entered the industry over 20 years ago as courts adopted digital audiovisual recording systems.
A court reporting agency supplies courts and attorneys with reporters for hearings and depositions. Today, digital court reporters are subcontracted by agencies. In turn, the audio and transcript production is technically owned by the reporting agencies. This gives the agencies control, which makes the production of transcriptions more efficient and usually at a lower cost for agencies, according to experts.
On the issue of cost, Squillante said that digital reporters are paid a lot less than skilled, trained stenographers.
Experts agree that digital reporters are paid a lower hourly rate than stenographers. However, reporting agencies set the price and still have the expense of producing the transcript from the audio.
Training Court Reporters
To prepare the next generation of court reporters, Falls signed on as the managing director and lead instructor for The Court Reporting Academy, which opened in 2021. Court reporting software company VoiceScript Inc. is one of its founding members.
Rene Arvin, CEO of VoiceScript and chairman of the school, told Law360 Pulse that court reporting agencies are having to completely change their delivery models as the industry evolves.
"Part of the problem is they don't know how to do digital," Arvin said. "The other problem is that when they're ready to do digital, there aren't enough digital [reporters]. When they do have digital reporters, there's not enough capacity to produce transcripts."
VoiceScript says its legal speech recognition platform can meet the transcript needs of court reporting agencies while the academy helps train digital reporters. The academy also trains stenographers and scopists, a role that assists court reporters in editing transcripts.
In fact, Arvin said the academy can be suitable for digital reporters who work for the agencies as employees or for those who want to be independent contractors.
The academy has had about a few hundred students since it opened six months ago. There are also six large agency clients that regularly send students every month.
While the school is not affiliated with any college, nor does it offer an official certification, it does collaborate with court reporting and legal transcription schools, including community colleges that offer court reporting programs.
The Court Reporting Academy courses are nondegree courses that help prepare students to pass industry certification exams, such as the American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers' Digital Reporter Certification exam.
Arvin said every student who has successfully completed the digital court reporting courses has passed industry certification exams and found either full-time employment or a ready market for their independent contractor services.
And unlike traditional stenographer programs that might take two to four years to complete, Arvin said the academy aims to get digital reporter students out in four to six weeks, stenographer students out in 18 to 36 months and scopist students out in nine to 18 months.
The length of the program depends on the student's availability and existing skills, according to Arvin. The courses are self-paced and online, and there are regular live in-person and group sessions scheduled throughout the week for students to attend.
There is also a mentorship program that matches students up with experienced court reporters and court reporting agencies to help them make the transition as practitioners.
"It's a wonderful stepping stone for a digital reporter," Falls said.
The Court Reporting Academy has said it will announce several industry sponsors in the near future, including national court reporting agencies, transcription companies and industry vendors.
There is also a formal scholarship program that the academy is working on for digital reporters and for students interested in training to become stenographers while working as digital reporters. The school anticipates offering 30 to 40 fully paid digital court reporting scholarships in the first quarter of 2022, with support in part from sponsors.
But some stenographers say supplementing the shortage with digital reporters puts the public record at risk.
Squillante said digital reporters are not properly trained for work in courtrooms and at depositions.
"They're not skilled in listening and taking down information," Squillante said. "They're just recording."
The NCRA makes similar arguments. According to language on the NCRA's website, digital reporting is risky due to few states having standards for digital reporter competency, no training and a lack of overall accountability and oversight.
That's why Dibble said stenographic court reporters remain "the gold standard in our trade."
"This is a highly specialized skill, and it requires intense training and discipline to achieve the high caliber of quality, as well as the personal integrity and ethical standards required to maintain and preserve the record," Dibble said.
Arvin said digital court reporters are trained to ensure that the audio is being properly recorded, but some stenographers worry about the handling of transcripts when a digital reporter is involved.
"The chain of custody of what happens during a deposition is in my hands, from beginning to end," Squillante said. "I'm never sending my product through an [artificial intelligence] where God knows where it can be compromised."
Arvin said having a digital reporter in the room controlling the audio ensures the accurate capture of the record.
While some stenographers, such as Falls, see digital reporters as important to solving the shortage, others such as Squillante say their jobs might be threatened by the technology.
"What we're offering is an alternative means," Falls said. "By no way are we trying to replace or do away with the human component."
Falls added that stenographers have disliked digital reporters for years and said that the NCRA sees digital reporters as a direct competitor.
"They're being very naive and don't want to accept what is," Falls said. "No one's trying to take their jobs away. I think that we've hit a lot of the pain points for most agencies out there."
At the heart of the debate is money. Squillante said digital reporting companies are emphasizing the shortage for profit, but Falls said some stenographers are trying to protect their high-paying jobs.
"They're preaching to those in the community that say there really isn't a shortage," Falls said. "Where are they then? They're not in my school."
"I'd like them to go out and try to find me five court reporters today, just five," Falls added. "They can't."
Even the math at the center of the shortage is under debate.
Christopher Day, a New York-based stenographer, told Law360 Pulse there is a shortage but argued it is being exaggerated by court reporting agencies using bad numbers to describe it.
Day said Cudahy is exaggerating the numbers and that Cudahy pushed to get the shortage forecast in the Ducker report, which resulted in new recruitment efforts for stenography.
"His numbers were not adjusted for any of the increased recruitment," Day said.
But Cudahy denies it, saying he helped develop some of the NCRA's recruitment efforts before he left for the STTI. In fact, Cudahy said the STTI's shortage projections already take into account the potential success of the stenography recruitment efforts, which he said he strongly supports.
However, he said there is no evidence that the stenography recruitment efforts have been successful so far.
But the impact of recruitment isn't the only issue that Day sees with the STTI's calculations.
"If STTI's numbers were accurate, 16% of all stenographer jobs would be going uncovered and that's not happening anywhere in this country," Day said. "Not even in California where the shortage was forecasted to be [20 times] worse than anywhere in the country."
Still, Cudahy defends the STTI's projections.
"I don't know how he could suggest that he knows what's being uncovered," Cudahy said of Day.
Recruiting New Stenographers
While there is disagreement about the scope of the shortage, all experts agree that something must be done for court reporting.
For example, Squillante said she communicates with clients to alleviate scheduling constraints and ensure that they have a stenographer. Videoconferencing tools have also enabled her to work multiple depositions hundreds of miles away on the same day.
Stenographers now recognize that recruiting the next generation is crucial. This includes the NCRA's A to Z program, which is a free six-week nationwide introductory course to help aspiring stenography students determine if this career path is a good fit.
"Through initiatives like Court Reporting & Captioning Week, coming up February 5-12, 2022, we ramp up our public relations machine to grab the attention of promising candidates to enter the field," Dibble said. "Ask most any working reporters and they will tell you this is the best career you've never heard of ... and that's our biggest obstacle right now."
Cudahy said that while these efforts should continue, stenography recruitment alone can't fill the market gap. He said the solution must include digital reporters.
"At some point, it's going to bring the legal system to its knees," Cudahy said. "There will be delays in court cases, there will be delays in depositions. It's inevitable if there's not a holistic solution that we pursue as an industry."
Until the shortage is resolved, Cudahy said that attorneys need to recognize that it is real, that it will escalate and that there will be new technologies used in court settings and depositions.
"Having worked at NCRA, having worked extensively with firms, having visited court reporters and courtrooms, having talked to schools and students, I understand the nostalgia and the fierce pride that stenographers have in their work, but it is absolutely a false divide that digital reporting and voice reporting are the mortal enemies of stenography," Cudahy said. "They can and must exist in the same ecosystem."
--Editing by Brian Baresch and Orlando Lorenzo.
Originally published in law360.com