By Timothy St. Clair
The opinion section of the JCR allows readers to express their thoughts on various topics. Statements of fact or opinion are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the opinion of NCRA or anyone connected with NCRA.
As we can all agree, the percentage of litigating lawyers we have any contact with are far outnumbered by those practicing law in the many other arenas available to their craft. Of those that call themselves litigators, the official court reporter generally has contact with a greater number of lawyers than the average freelance reporter. I understand that an extremely busy freelance shop has contact with a great number of law firms, and a great number of court reporters. But taken individually, each reporter may not have contact with many different lawyers. Contrast that with the official in a busy court where all those cases end up in one venue. I have been on both sides as a reporter – official and freelance. I am sure there are some that will argue the above point, and perhaps I can be proven wrong with national statistics, etc., but this has been my general experience for the past 30 years.
The responsibility I am about to discuss has little to do with our day-to-day job duties. Our greater responsibility has to do with our interaction with the bar and their clients — an interaction that has short-term and long-term implications. Implications that affect not only our bottom line at the end of the month, but more importantly, the bottom line in terms of our future as a profession.
Allow me to pose some questions. Do you see yourself as finding fault with the mechanics of a lawyer’s presentation (i.e., talks too fast, mumbles, interrupts, etc.)? Or do you see yourself approaching a difficult situation with tact and a solution? Are you more interested in the total on your invoice, or are you more interested in being fair-minded? Have you become so callused by what you see and hear as to have no compassion?
As an official, do you often take the attitude of “that’s not my job,” or do you pinch in at times to help with a “non-reporter” task? As an official, do you hold yourself in such high esteem that you lord it over the other courthouse personnel? As either an official or freelance reporter, when is the last time you read the Code of Ethics?
I am sure at this point there are some who will quit reading. Either thinking I’m nuts in thinking any of these questions need to be asked, or thinking I’m nuts because how dare I ask these questions. But I ask these questions because during my years as a freelance reporter and an official reporter, I have seen both sides of these questions lived out.
I live and work in the state of Indiana. Indiana has no certification for court reporters. The courts are manned with both stenotype reporters and “Sony” reporters (with the larger number in our state being “Sony” reporters). We have recently seen changes in Indiana that are, I believe, being brought about because of the negative view others have of court reporters. And I will say the negativity can be sometimes deserved.
I believe the key components to that negativity are the lack of certification, the lack of education, and the lack of ethics. I can tell you that not all the negativity is produced by the “Sony” court reporters. A good portion is produced by stenotype court reporters who have lost the view of the larger picture.
Above all else, we as court reporters must think of ourselves as ambassadors – ambassadors of a time-honored profession of guardians of the record. We must think in terms of being an asset to those around us and not an annoyance. For years, I have told people that I want to be unnoticed as I practice my trade. I want to be unnoticed because to me that means that I am doing my job well. Usually one is only noticed when he or she has done something incorrectly or not done something that was to be done.
Thirty plus years ago, I knew I needed to return to school to better provide for my family. I asked a family friend who was a lawyer about becoming a paralegal. His response was “learn how to be a court reporter; they make a lot of money.” (I’m still waiting). Within a week of that conversation, I found myself at a career night at a local community college that had a court reporting course. I returned home from that career night and told my wife that I found a course of study to pursue. I felt then, as I do now, that if I perform my duties in a role as important as a court reporter that it will be a profession where I can make a positive difference!
When I embarked on a career as a court reporter, I heard the forever cry “ER will replace you.” The cry continues. If our future is threatened, it may very well be that the threat is from within. The threat is apathy – the court reporter who doesn’t feel the need to grow his or her skills and is satisfied with the status quo. The threat is being the prima donna employee who doesn’t know how to get along with anyone other than self. The threat is poor interaction with members of the bar (does “cut off your nose to spite your face” come to mind?). As an official, offer a rough transcript to your judge following a complicated summary judgment hearing; offer him/her a CART window or realtime. Become a value-added employee. Does a lawyer need you to spend five minutes and look something up in your notes? Do it. You don’t have to always invoice.
Please understand that I’m not advocating that we not charge for what we do. But I am saying not everything deserves an invoice. There are times when there is more long-term value gained from simply being of service.
Timothy St. Clair, RMR, is the owner of St. Clair Court Reporting in South Bend, Ind. He can be reached at email@example.com.