For nearly a decade, the Ducker Report1 that was published by the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) has been the most referenced and debated study regarding court reporters and their job market. Though the NCRA commissioned the report with the mission to present facts to help promote marketing, recruitment, and advocacy for stenographic court reporting, the findings that the industry would soon be facing an overwhelming shortage of stenographic reporters quickly devolved into a human vs technology discussion.
On one side, there are digital reporting and speech-to-text supporters that used the findings to influence the market into adopting technology as an alternative solution to the shortage. On the other side, stenographers, shorthand reporters, and their advocates, like the NCRA, who view digital adoption as “the greatest modern threat to the stenographic court reporting profession”.1 This prompted them to create a task force, NCRA STRONG, to discredit the validity of technological alternatives and their own research over time. In their latest article, “The Demise of the Ducker Report. Lessons learned and successes celebrated”, they state that the report “would likely be determined an inaccurate sampling of respondents,” but highlights the efforts made to combat the predicted shortage including the A-to-Z Shorthand program, the Open Steno Project, relaxed state rules, and increased education, tools, and certification programs for stenographers.2
Opposing opinions of the “stenographer crisis”
As we begin 2023, opposers to the research are right about one thing, the Ducker Report is out of date and should not be used as a prediction tool for the industry today. With a lack of more recent, comprehensive data, including the growing acceptance of digital court reporters, it is impossible to completely understand the current state of the industry. On the other hand, we can take the lessons learned, what has changed in the market, and the more recent data that is available to make better decisions on the future of courts, such as:
- According to the NCRA, there has been a decrease of approx. 5,000 stenographic court reporters between 2013-2022. Though it isn’t nearly as fast as what the Ducker Report predicted, it still shows a steady decline in supply vs demand. 3,4
- Despite the growth of online court reporting schools and new programs, only 26 NCRA Approved Schools were reported in 2022, the same as 2015 4,5
- According to the U.S. Labor Department, employment of court reporters and simultaneous captioners is projected to show little or no change from 2021-2031.6
- An average of 2,000 openings for court reporters and simultaneous captioners projected each year, only 364 total NCRA court reporter certifications were completed in 2021.4,6
- Most of the openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as retiring. The average age of an employed stenographic court reporter is 55 years old. Though some will wait to retire, there is still a concern for courts that are having difficulty filling current vacancies to meet the demand. 6
Even with reduced requirements and faster paths to certifications, stenography and court reporting are specialized fields where court and legal experience is priceless. It is not as simple as replacing a 15-year legal professional with an entry-level court reporter and getting the same quality, speed and reliability of transcripts.
Adoption of digital access to justice
Another major challenge that makes the issue difficult to address is how rules and regulations differ from state to state.
Reports nationwide have shown that the labor shortage has caused most courts to adopt the following:
- Stenographic court reporters are only required for criminal or high-profile cases. If a court reporter is not available to cover a criminal hearing, the hearing is delayed until one is available.
- Civil cases and some misdemeanors/infractions do not require a stenographer and only some courts allow there to be a digital recording of the proceedings if a certified court reporter is not available. If a court reporter is not available for a civil hearing, it is typically the legal parties’ responsibility to employ a court reporter or lose any official record of the events.
- Courts also adopted remote hearings during the pandemic and though courtrooms are back open, most appear to be continuing with a hybrid approach.
According to a 2020 study by Strategy&, a division of PwC, 65-75% of courts facing a shortage have adopted digital court reporting.7 Digital court reporting involves an AAERT-certified court reporter who monitors the recording to ensure quality and takes notes during the trial. When an official transcript is needed, they listen to the digital recording to create the document or route it to trusted transcriptionists. The transition to digital increased the overall number of court reporters available and freed up stenographers to transcribe select cases. With the latest technology and acceleration of remote hearings from the pandemic, it’s easier for a digital court reporter to be present during the hearing to ensure reliability and accuracy.
Though state laws vary, most courts have adopted a form of digital court reporting to help with access to audio recordings of previous trials. Reports can be found of Alaska, Florida, Washington, Wyoming, Minnesota, Ohio, Kansas, South Carolina, and Colorado courts all adopting electronic court reporting to preserve court records and help decrease the burden the shortage caused. On the other hand, states and counties that have legal roadblocks or have not properly allocated budget towards digital solutions are having the hardest time adjusting. In Part Two of this discussion, we will examine a state currently facing those challenges and how another state has implemented a novel solution.
Court reporting agencies and schools have also seen an increase in adopting digital reporting to face the challenge of the labor shortage. Large stenographic reporting firms are hiring digital reporters to fill their demand, and many of them have their own internal digital reporting training programs.7 Approved court reporting schools have responded with expanding certifications for digital court reporters.8 Unlike traditional stenographer programs that might take two to four years to complete, some schools aim to get digital reporter students out in four to six weeks with courses that are self-paced and online, along with regular live in-person and group sessions for students to attend. The term “court reporter” is evolving and speech-to-text can help meet current court needs while schools continue recruitment and training of court reporters.
Working together to create the courtroom of the future
One thing certain is that instead of perpetuating the argument, both sides should be working together to move in a direction that supports justice. “Demise of the Ducker Report” highlights how using technology has supported the success of courts:
- Improvements of remote technology during the pandemic have seen courts adopt hybrid hearings.
- Flexibility in scheduling, remote access, and the availability of digital court recordings has increased productivity by allowing one court reporter to cover multiple jurisdictions.
- There’s been an increased number of certifications and scholarships available for court reporters, including new programs for digital court reporting.
- Courses in scoping and proofreading will help court reporters become faster at editing speech-to-text drafts.
- A diminished quantity of depositions being scheduled and conducted. This can be attributed to staffing shortages and accelerated adoption of digital recording and speech-to-text at law firms.
At VIQ Solutions, we believe technology can assist humans to be more efficient and enable better collaboration when capturing the court record. We are dedicated to improvements of recording technology, artificial intelligence, and speech recognition engines to reduce turnaround times and price for document creation. Whether you are a transcriptionist with a steno machine or digital court reporter using a QWERTY keyboard to edit, we are focused on providing digital tools to meet the challenges of managing records and increasing workflow productivity for courts and other industries, not replace workers. Beyond the technology, VIQ has been dedicated to expanding transcription and court reporting services across the globe to meet demand and provide a complete end-to-end solution.
Change can be uncertain but must be accepted to future-proof courtrooms. Technology that assists humans and makes workflows more efficient will change the way courts work to best provide access to accurate records.
Stay tuned for Part Two!
7. Strategy&, of PwC, report: “The Future of Court Reporting” (2020)