By Debbie Kriegshauser
So you’ve made it through school and passed those required tests and now the daunting question: Do I want to be a freelancer or an official reporter?
There are many pros and cons to each. Deciding on which to choose can be a tricky question, but it ultimately becomes an individual personal decision after weighing all those pros and cons. I’ve had the good fortune to participate in pretty much all arenas of reporting, so let me share some tidbits with you to consider when making the decision for yourself.
Ahh, the opportunity to choose when I want to work, how much I want to work, and be able to work around my lifestyle. Doesn’t sound bad, right?
Well, you will undoubtedly work for a freelance agency or perhaps on your own if you have a clientele you can rely on. If you’re a newbie, it generally takes some time working for an agency before you can develop that reputation and rapport with the attorneys who will want to request you as their reporter on the next deposition they schedule. So it’s vital to work on that reputation as far as providing great work product and timely service. Don’t be afraid of challenging deposition content, like medical terminology and patent litigation. Those areas are where you really get the requests to provide your excellent service. If you are a reporter who turns out bad transcripts with misspellings and punctuation problems, or a reporter who takes weeks to turn around that final product, the lawyers aren’t going to want to have you in their circle.
Always remember: In freelance work, you only make money when you’re producing and turning out transcripts. That is your sole income!
“I have kids! My kids have sports events, swimming lessons, the full gamut.” Yes, freelancing can be great for these types of events but don’t always plan on that deposition to be finalized within an hour or two. Some depositions that you think may be short can fool you and throw your entire schedule for the day off kilter. You have to be prepared for the uncertainty and always have a Plan B backup. Maybe you’re taking a doctor’s deposition. “Gee, sorry, that doctor got called into surgery,” and so you sit and wait and wait and wait. The unexpected always seems to happen.
Freelancing does give you the flexibility to arrange your schedule, especially if you’re needing to leave town or have an important event to attend. Generally, a good freelance firm owner will work with you in that regard and grant your wishes. In return, you need to be available at a moment’s notice when they run into a crunch as well, with maybe covering another deposition that someone else could not attend, be it due to illness or if they’re stuck in another deposition that started earlier in the day. If you’re there for your boss when they need you, they will be there for you as well.
As far as freelancing and when it comes time to go on vacation, well, you better pack that laptop with you as well so you can work on transcripts because, remember, you only make money when you’re turning out final transcripts. Taking a week off and not billing out any transcripts, your next paycheck is going to be very little, plus falling behind in your production can be a catastrophe when you return to the office and you’re scheduled to report many depositions upon your return. It’s very easy in the freelance world to be inundated with transcript pages. You need to have excellent time management skills to be a productive freelance reporter and have the discipline to control your urges to “want to have fun” instead of working.
The money question
So now you’ve been good about staying caught up on your transcripts. That’s great because you can suddenly see all this money pouring in! That’s always a good feeling! If you’re a big producer as a reporter, you will earn top dollar as a freelancer, especially providing realtime feeds to the attorneys in patent litigation cases. Those are where the realtime requests come in.
Now before you spend all that money, don’t forget: You may have to buy more supplies, pay your monthly premium for health insurance because you don’t have that benefit and perhaps make retirement fund account payments. Stay on top of that car maintenance, too, because you’re putting many miles on your car traveling to and from reporter assignments all over creation. There are no benefits in the freelance world. You’re totally on your own. Also, don’t forget you’ll need to pay Uncle Sam a portion of all that money you’re pocketing on transcripts by way of quarterly estimated tax payments to the IRS.
I enjoyed all my years freelancing, though, 25 years to be exact, and I got to meet some pretty important people through the process. During the O.J. Simpson trial, I got to meet a relative of Nicole Brown’s as they needed her testimony in an expeditious fashion and she was too elderly to travel to California, so I got to report that depo back in St. Louis, Mo. I also, as a freelance reporter, got to do player interviews of the Senior Pro players where I personally met Arnold Palmer and many other popular golfers at the time. I’ve covered conventions in Orlando, Fla., for all the treasurers across the country involved in the Shriners Association. Yes, being proficient at using the number bar was very important for that assignment! I’ve traveled in a small plane to Ohio to cover depos at a UPS facility. I’ve taken a deposition on a barge, at people’s homes. The freelance world provides you with a change of scenery every single day.
After 25 years of freelancing, I became a federal official. Well, a big change was the 8:30 to 5 or 7:30 to 4 schedule where I had to be at the courthouse every day, same place, same office. If we were in trial, even though my schedule ended at four, you stayed till five when the judge wanted to end for the day or maybe after, if you had a witness on the stand they wanted to finish.
My first federal position I was on the Leave Act where you had to earn time to be able to take time off. If you didn’t have the time, you didn’t take off. So every two-week pay period, you earn so many leave hours for vacation as well as sick time. In my current position, I am no longer on the Leave Act, so we either work from home when we have no court (mostly as a result of COVID-19) or at the office and we clear our leave time with the judge when we want to take time off.
As an official, you are not transcribing every steno stroke you report. You only transcribe when an order comes in. Hence, it’s feast or famine. You’re either terribly busy or don’t have much to do at all in transcript preparation. However, you have a guaranteed paycheck as you’re paid a salary as an official, and the transcript income is icing on the cake, as they say. Kind of like a double income! You have taxes taken out of your salary as any other salaried job, and you’re only responsible for paying Uncle Sam what you have earned on your transcripts either through quarterly estimated payments or at the end of the tax year, although you could pay a small penalty for not making the estimated tax payments and waiting till the end when you prepare your tax return.
Yes, a salary is grand! When we went through COVID-19 and a lot of legal work was drying up – depositions, court hearings – we were still earning our salary every two weeks. So that was a benefit! And we have every federal holiday free! In the depo world, attorneys like to work on some of the calendar holidays because they’re not scheduled to be in a courthouse somewhere, so they find those days convenient to schedule depositions.
Also, I’ve suddenly got a retirement account that grows and grows the longer I’m employed. I also have health insurance and dental and vision for me and my family which I pay a small fraction for through my salary (except the premiums are nothing like when I was freelancing and paying very high premiums for health insurance). Keep in mind, if you have a spouse who can carry the health insurance for the family through their employment, then this is not a huge concern at all for you.
All courthouses and all judges are different. You can have great locations to work at, you can have excellent judges to work for, but the opposite holds true as well. There’s usually one bad apple in the bunch. It’s important to be able to work with the judges in your courthouse because you might be covering for one another in a pinch or having to cover the magistrate judges who don’t have court reporters assigned to them. I have made fabulous relationships with all the judges I’ve worked with. If I had a need to be at an important event in my kids’ lives, they had my back and saw to it that I could either leave early, come in early, make up the time or whatever. I’ve changed my hours and I’ve taken leave time in the past to attend many tennis matches for my daughter. As well, if my child was sick or my parents became ill and needed me, I had sick time to use to be able to leave at a moment’s notice. I was not trapped at the courthouse.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the state courthouses provide the reporters steno machines and court reporting software. For some reporters this can be a huge benefit. Federal courthouses do not provide this feature. However, when the equipment is provided, you’re stuck with who they contract with as far as providing the steno machines and the software. You usually will not have a choice or say in the matter. In federal court, I am providing all my equipment and supplies to produce my transcripts. The only thing that is provided for me is a desk, a desktop computer, a telephone, and an office.
One thing I have noticed as an official reporter is that I generally am not working on the weekends or in the evenings (unless I want to). I’m not taking my work on vacation like I did as a freelancer. I go on vacation and I’m literally on vacation. Now I do find myself taking my laptop with me just in case something comes up that someone needs back at the courthouse, via a rough draft transcript, but that is so very rare.
High demand for both
Keep in mind there is such a demand for court reporters everywhere! If you take a job and realize it’s not for you, you have the choice to move on to something else. You’re not stuck! There’s going to be job opportunities far and wide. Be open with your future employers. Explain your personal situations. In today’s world, they need you just as badly as you need the job. If you are offered a job opportunity, be it freelance or official, take it and try it out. You’re not forced to stay there. Be open and above board about your schedule. Maybe you can work out the details. Don’t lie about your personal situations. Be a trusting and reliable employee. Trying to dodge bullets or hide under the radar, sneak out, whatever, and you’re just ruining your professional reputation. Also, if you skimp and don’t care about your final work product and send it in with misspellings, missing words, shoddy punctuation, all because you’re in a hurry to get somewhere or get it turned in, you’re only hurting yourself. A bad reputation on a reporter spreads like wildfire! Your next potential employer will hear about you before you ever walk through the door.
I have thoroughly enjoyed being a freelancer and an official. Gosh, the friendships I’ve made all around the country are endless. I truly thought I would never like to be an official reporter, but I finally get to hear the case till the bitter end! Unlike depos, we never know what ends up happening and, as we know, many of those cases settle, anyway. My only regret not starting as an official from day one is my retirement 401(k) would sure be a lot larger by now!
I hope I’ve answered a lot of your questions and these tidbits of info will help you in making your ultimate decision. Best of luck to you in your career!
Debbie Kriegshauser, FAPR, RMR, CRR, CRC, CLVS is an official court reporter in Dallas, Texas. She can be reached at Deborah0841@att.net.