Court reporters are trained stenographers who transcribe verbatim records of court proceedings and other legal proceedings like depositions, and also often work outside of the field of law transcribing things like speeches, meetings, and other events.
In the course of their careers, court reporters hear it all: descriptions of murders, divorces, bankruptcy, white-collar crime, routine transactions, courtroom outbursts… the amusing and the tragic.
Despite the drama around them, court reporters absolutely must maintain their composure and remain attentive to the details of the proceeding. Their record of what the judge, attorneys, and witnesses say will become the definitive document, used and referenced in future citations, appeals, and even in classrooms when the case is discussed many years after the final proceedings.
Job Description: Court Reporting Is About Making a Hard Job Look Easy
As a bit player in every legal television show and movie ever made, most people think they are familiar with the role of a court reporter: to sit meekly in front of the judge and read back astounding statements on request.
But the job requires enormous concentration and skill. It can be more like performing music than just typing; in fact, the highly specialized stenography machines resemble a piano more than a typewriter. Some sounds or words are recorded by making chords, and each court reporter has their own personal variation on standard shorthand themes, like jazz riffs off a plain melody.
All of this must come together to create an unimpeachable paper record of a proceeding. Much of the work of the court reporter is performed after the actual typing is done—transcribing their shorthand to the official record, double-checking against recordings, formatting to match official requirements. Names have to be accurate; uncommon terms have to be spelled correctly.
The reporter may also be responsible for organizing these records and referencing them at the request of judges or lawyers.
Many court reporters are independent contractors. They may be hired by the court system to work in trials or official proceedings, by attorneys to record depositions or other matters, or by other agencies that hold hearings or other proceedings that require an official record.
A lot of court reporters work in other scenarios that require on-demand stenography, including close-captioning for media or realtime broadcasting or voice-to-text translations (CART, Communication Access Realtime Translation) for individuals without hearing.
The Role of The Court Reporter in a Digital Society
The question of why court reporters still have a job in a world where high-definition recording devices can capture every detail of a legal proceeding in crystalline, flawless digital formats is a complex one. And it’s not a new question.
In 1990, the New Jersey State Supreme Court considered switching to electronic recording and laying off their court reporters. But ultimately the decision was made to keep humans in the loop.
One of the court reporters the New York Times interviewed when they broke the story, Steven Koskinen, points out, “The tape recorder does not record language. It just mindlessly records sounds.”
Court reporters, however, are active participants in the room. If participants talk over one another or speak too low to hear clearly, they can ask people to repeat themselves to ensure the record is clear and accurate. Recording devices are true to life, but life sometimes needs a little assistance to get to clarity.
In practice, digital technology has improved the speed and accuracy of court reporters themselves as they have started using it in combination with traditional techniques.
Modern stenography machines, for example, may make use of voice recognition to allow reporters themselves to make transcribed recordings in real time. They can manually clarify any problems with the transcription. Other machines provide a real-time translation of the shorthand in which the stenographer is typing, making the process smoother and faster.
Some machines also interface with court systems so that the record is instantly backed up and filed on servers far from the courtroom. Modern court reporters have to be computer-savvy as well as quick-fingered.
How to Become a Court Reporter: Education and Licensure for Court Reporters
Although a court reporter is essentially just a stenographer, they often must fulfill additional training or certification requirements to obtain licensing for official duties.
According to the National Court Reporter’s Association (NCRA), there are only 34 NCRA-approved programs for court reporters at various colleges and universities. These programs may be in person or online, but all meet the General Requirements and Minimum Standards (GRMS) established by the NCRA’s Council on Approved Student Education (CASE).
Successful graduates must capture at least 225 words per minute for graduation, a standard also required for federal government positions. The type of education and the time it takes to complete it often varies based on the type of transcription methods being taught—different schools use different machine shorthand theories for capturing transcripts.
Court reporters who work in legal settings must generally be licensed in the state in which they work. Licensing requirements vary depending on the transcription method used.
National certification through the National Verbatim Reporters Association (NVRA) is generally recognized by states that use the voice-writing court reporting method.
Certifications for Court Reporters
The National Court Reporters Association offers a number of professional certifications:
- Registered Professional Reporter (RPR)
- Registered Diplomate Reporter (RDR)
- Certified Realtime Reporter (CRR)
- Certified Realtime Captioner (CRC)
- Registered Merit Reporter (RMR)
- Certified Legal Video Specialist (CLVS)
There are currently 22 states that have accepted the RPR designation in place of state certification or licensing.
To maintain certification, all professionals must complete at least 3 units of continuing education every three years.
The National Verbatim Reporters Association (NVRA) also offers several national certificates:
- Certified Verbatim Reporter (CVR)
- Certificate of Merit (CM)
- Military Verbatim Reporter (MVR)
- Realtime Verbatim Reporter (RVR)
- Registered Broadcast Captioner – Master (RBC-M)
- Registered CART Provider – Master (RCP-M)
Thirty-seven states accept a CVR certification as qualification in lieu of going through the state testing process.
The United States Court Reporters Association represents the Federal Official Reporting System and offers the Federal Certified Realtime Reporter (FCRR) certification. This is the sole credential for court reporters working within the federal court system.
Salary Statistics: What Court Reporters Can Expect to Earn
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, court reporters earned a median annual salary of $51,320 as of May 2016, with the top 10 percent earning more than $95,990.
In a survey of their members, the National Court Reporters Association found the average salary to be $64,672. Court reporters working as broadcast captioners earned within the range of $45,000 and $75,000, while CART reporters were found to earn salaries that ranged between $35,000 and $65,000.