What's a Stenographer and What Are His Duties?

You may have been a juror or seen a trial on television and heard testimony read back to the court. That was the court reporter, an officer of the court, and it is their job to capture what is being said in a hearing or deposition, then transcribing it into written word. Some court reporters do closed-captioning for television and film, and some work in law offices, taking down dictation for attorneys. Stenographers have to be very proficient with their stenography machine and with the computer software for their profession. They must have strong English skills and a strong vocabulary in the areas they are working in. To be a court reporter you will need to be able to sit and concentrate for long periods of time.

The Tools of a Court Reporter

A court reporter uses a short-hand machine known as a steno writer. It allows the stenographer to use an abbreviated alphabet and groups of letters to stand for different phrases. It is almost like learning a different language, which in the stenography world the language is called a theory. There are strokes for common sayings like "I don't remember," and designations to show who is speaking. This is then transcribed into a written format and proofread. Most stenographers now have a software program for their computers that will transcribe it automatically. This will still need to be proofread for accuracy. To become NCRA certified, a court reporter will need to pass a speed test on their stenography machine. The minimum speed is between 225 words per minute and 250 words per minute. Licensed court reporters are required to attend continuing education courses to maintain their licensure.

Where and How Court Reporters Work

A high percent of court reports work as freelance stenographers. They work through agencies as contractors and are hired by lawyers for pretrial depositions, hearings and other legal proceedings. Stenographers that work in the courtroom work for the state or federal government, mainly in civil/criminal trials and hearings. State and federal court reporters are government employees and receive a salary and benefits from the government. Freelance court reporters are usually responsible for paying their own benefits and must pay income taxes quarterly. Most state and federal court reporters have to have been a freelance court reporter for at least 2 years and pass additional exams and speed tests. Another career choice for a stenography school graduate is a closed caption reporter. A broadcast captioner works within the film and television industry, providing closed captioning for the hearing impaired. This is a field of stenography that is growing rapidly.

Because court reporters are considered officers of the court, they need to pass the Notary Public test. They are responsible for swearing in the witness who is going to testify. They take down every single word that is said, and if they cannot understand the speaker, they need to interrupt and ask them to repeat themselves. State and federal stenographers are not required to make a transcript unless the attorney requests one. In that case, they get paid extra to create a transcript. A freelance stenographer though is usually required to make a transcript of the proceedings. Most freelancers have stenography systems that feed into their computer and automatically translate the shorthand into standard text. They will later proofread it for accuracy and create a transcript. Most freelance court reporters earn their living by receiving a flat rate per page of transcript. The amount can vary widely from $2.50 per page to $6.50 per page, dependent upon the turnaround time required. A standard day of testimony works out roughly to about 250 to 400 pages. Rarely do freelancers work in the courtroom, instead they get assignments from their agencies and travel to various locations. Most assignments or jobs will not start until 10 a.m. and freelancers have the opportunity to choose the jobs they want to take. They do not have to work 5 days a week, but they do need to be highly disciplined. A court reporter will need to spend time prepping their machines and finishing the transcriptions in between jobs. Many times there are tight deadlines that they will need to meet.

The job market outlook for court reporting and closed captioning is bright, with expectations of a growth rate of 18-25% by the year 2018. This isn't the career choice for everyone though, there is an above average dropout rate in schools due to the difficulties of the speed tests. If you feel you have the self discipline and ability to become a court reporter it is definitely a career to consider. The average salary is between $30,000 and $75,000 per year, with California having the highest average salary for licensed court reporters.