When quietly scanning a courtroom, most of us would likely notice lawyers with their defendants, a prosecutor, a couple or more bailiffs, maybe some members of the media, and the presiding judge.
And, when asked who we think the most important professional is in a courtroom, many of us wouldn’t hesitate to answer: In that setting, the judge is definitely more important.
We might base that assumption on the fact that the judge controls the proceedings and decides on the consequences for criminal acts.
While it makes sense to consider the judge as the most important, due to all that legal power, there’s another person that some would argue is equally as important. That person typically is the most silent, obscure individual in a courtroom. They are seldom noticed or acknowledged, even though they typically are seated near the judge — at a small desk.
That person is the court reporter.
No one is rushing to do documentaries on the life of court reporters, but they are critical to legal proceedings. The court reporter’s primary responsibility is to record live testimony and other relevant remarks made during court proceedings.
That means they diligently follow the work in the courtroom, transcribing the testimony into a document that cannot be changed in any way by anyone.
What it takes to be a court reporter
Imagine for a moment, how many voices are typically heard during a trial. The court reporter must keep up with the words of every attorney, every witness, and every sentence made by every person who speaks in the courtroom.
And once you imagine that level of responsibility, you also can understand why most people in the room never notice the court reporter’s face. They’re typically focused, face down as their fingers fly across a small keyboard, transcribing every word spoken during a legal proceeding.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a court reporter was $61,660 in 2020 — significantly higher than the median salary for all U.S. jobs, which was $34,612 in 2020, according to the Social Security Administration.
However, the job market for this position was growing at a rate of 3 percent for the next nine years, which is lower than the average for all jobs, which is projected at 8 percent, according to the BLS.
Educational and skill level requirements of a court reporter
If the prospect of taking on a low-profile yet important job that demands focus, impartiality and precision seem intriguing, you may be ideally suited to be a court reporter or — as they are sometimes called — a stenographer and “guardian of the record.”
In most cases, a person can get the training and skills necessary to work as a court reporter in two years or less. While the requirements vary from state to state, they typically include the following.
- Completion of a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree. It’s not necessary to attend a university for these types of classes. Technical institutes and community colleges often offer certificate programs for this field with courses typically including: English grammar, shorthand, captioning, legal and medical terminology, transcript and court reporting procedures, communications and word processing and legal studies.
- Demonstrated proficiency by completing transcriptions at speeds of 180, 200 and 225 words per minute with 95 percent accuracy (typically required to graduate from a court reporting program)
- Clear knowledge of criminal and appellate procedures
- Ability to type up to 200 words per minute with 97.5% accuracy
- Ability to remain focused for hours at a time in situations that can occasionally be highly stressful
- Ability to be well organized
- Undergo on-the-job training
- Have a comfort level related to using computer-aided transcription and real-time reporting
- Ability to confidently learn to work on a stenographic machine. This can be a challenging skill to develop since this machine has only 22 keys, as opposed to other keyboards with more than 70 keys
- Pass an exam for licensing and certification from a professional association, depending upon the state’s requirements. Some well-recognized associations in the field include the National Court Reporters Association, the National Verbatim Reporters Association and United States Court Reporters Association.
Day-in-the-life as a court reporter
With charges, testimonies and arguments in various legal cases significantly varying, the court reporter will seldom have two days that look remotely alike. However, there will be some similarities in expectations during the course of their duties.
For example, when a prosecutor says something like, “Mr. Jones, you told the court yesterday that you did not see a gun in Mr. Smith’s possession. Yet today, you have testified that you did see a gun. In fact, you testified that you saw the gun in a holster on his waist. Let me remind you that you are under oath. Let’s take a few moments to look back at your testimony.”
In that moment, the court reporter presents the word-for-word exchange in question, so the lawyer can freshen the memory of the court.
During these real-time instances, lawyers and judges heavily depend on court reporters to verify testimony. But these transcriptions — official, certified documents — also are vital when appeals are filed with the court days, months and, in some instances, years later.
When taking on a position as a court reporter, it’s important to consider the level of pressure involved in being accurate, as well as the self-discipline to never, ever allow your mind to wander. Every single word must be heard and accurately typed.
Many people who successfully complete the training needed to be a court reporter will go on to focus on work in the legal field. However, there are other job opportunities available to them.
Job prospects for a court reporter
- Closed/broadcast captioning: The need for experts in closed captioning has grown exponentially in recent years — and not because they is a significant increase among viewers who are deaf and hard of hearing. According to one recent survey, 80 percent of the viewers who regularly use captions are not hearing impaired. For that reason, court reporters can seek employment with TV stations that need closed captioning in real time for live broadcasts.
- Legislative proceedings: Court reporters also have opportunities to transcribe cases in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress.
- Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART): With additional training, a court reporter can provide CART services, using a stenographer machine, a computer and real-time software to provide word-to-text translation for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Ongoing training to be a court reporter
Once you’ve been trained and certified as a court reporter, it’s important to continue honing your skills through ongoing training, including through participation in industry-related seminars, online classes, and workshops offered by organizations like the NCRA, the National Center for State Courts and the USCRA.
These sites also offer a significant number of resources to assist you in your journey as a court reporter.
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