Updated: Aug 19
Has your litigation team been challenged to book a court reporter for a deposition?
Are you a skilled freelancer with a high accuracy rate irritated by cheap legal service providers who deliver horrible transcription services?
Are you dubiously intrigued by deposition services without stenographers who are just using digital recording equipment?
Settle in, we have a ways to go.
There’s a debate on automating transcription, and both sides are ardent. On one side, the automation camp – Team Speech-to-Text - has announced that the dire nationwide shortage of court reporters combined with the steep decline of new court reporter school entrants[i] will create about a 50% gap between available workers and demand by 2028.[ii] Only about 15% of people who start court reporting school finish, and the average age of an accredited court reporter today is 52 (or 55 for all court reporters, per the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) itself!). This workforce is not being adequately backfilled.
On the other side of the conference table, Team Court Reporter argues that automation, while improving, cannot replace the judgment and rapid adaptability of a human court reporter. Examples abound: A sensitive case has a young child for a witness whose voice is too soft to pick up. A deponent has a difficult accent or impediment that speech-to-text fumbles to ill effect. Current speech-to-text technology in general struggles with minorities, regional accents, and speakers of English as a second language.[iii]
Team Court Reporter also rebuts the gloomy scenario of shortages with the patent fact that shortages are only pronounced in some states, while most states have plenty of court reporters for the foreseeable future.
Here’s the twist: about 20 states don’t have mandatory certification or licensure requirements for court reporters to begin with.[iv] In most states, you do need to pass a state proficiency exam to be a candidate for the job. But in a few states, you can market yourself as a freelancer. Market demand is pulling freelancer salaries higher, so there is competition for these jobs and a lot more transcription is being done without a steno machine.
But any human or technology purists, if they exist, are arguing the wrong question.
Instead of asking whether technology will replace the court reporter, we should all be asking, “How is the role of the court reporter going to evolve, and will it be done by the people who hold this title today, or by others?”
Team Speech to Text would concede that human judgment is superior to that of artificial intelligences, especially when human speech is garbled, heavily accented, uses uncommon or technical terms or names, speakers talk over each other, etc. Team Court Reporter has to concede that capturing speech is, in and of itself, a task that a machine can often do as well as a human, under the right conditions, and that court reporters add more value in other aspects of their role.
The role of the court reporter has already begun to transform into a much more digital one. [v] The NCRA recognizes this and seeks to help its members adapt to an evolving tech landscape while maintaining standards.
Still, what is it about the role that sets the human apart? The court reporter’s purpose is to serve as a neutral third party to help capture a reliable evidentiary record. They swear in a witness (unless parties have stipulated otherwise under FRCP 29). They make sure that testimony is clearly captured and not a bunch of babble. And, not least, they factor for bias (accents, disabilities, etc).
The evolution has commenced. Some variations of this in the market include:
The formerly captive court reporter is now a remote freelancer capable of offering live or asynchronous transcription, in control of her or his own schedule.
The freelancer who uses realtime AI-based transcription, then does a final clean-up and diarization for a fully “certified” transcript
A hybrid tech solution, the steno mask, which uses a human voice to “assist” a voice recognition software (which can be AI-driven) performing realtime transcription
Online deposition “concierge” services that provide streaming audio, video, transcription, and transcript, for an hourly rate – these services may not have qualified court reporters on staff (caveat emptor)
Why are there so many non-traditional options emerging? Who has the power? There’s a useful model for analyzing competition in an industry, Porter’s Five Forces. I’ll shorthand it here.
Suppliers. In this case, it is labor, with a finite and decreasing supply of high quality. Powerful.
Customers. Courts, law firms, and corporations. Powerful, with lots of cash.
Threat of new entrants. Low. There aren’t enough new human court reporters entering the market.
Competition. Medium. Freelancers may be a threat to official reporters. Remote freelancers challenge local reporters.
Threat of substitute products. I.e., non-certified or non-human. Extremely powerful. Alternatives to traditional synchronous, official stenographer/court reporters are already being adopted around the country. See above.
Demand will only continue to increase. The supply of certified, degreed reporters is decreasing, and while powerful, they cannot stop their customers from going to substitutes. The substitute solutions are already here.
There will always be a need for a trustworthy, skilled person who can transcribe testimony in specific conditions, with or without augmentation of AI technology. Those circumstances will become less frequent as the substitutes become more accurate, more adaptive, and less expensive. Human court reporters can adopt and master substitute tools themselves to assert command and maintain high standards.
Evolving the Court Reporter's Role
If you, as an independent contractor, were to go into the court reporting industry today, consider approaching it as a court reporting technologist. Since only 20% of court reporters offer realtime transcription, you should augment your offerings and differentiate yourself by using AI to offer realtime transcription.
What if you aren’t already a reporting school graduate? It's a valuable degree with vital skills, but fewer people are enrolling for legitimate reasons. Instead of going through a harrowing academic gauntlet with a low graduation rate, assuming you live in a state that doesn't require a degree, you could instead prepare for proficiency and/or certification tests, then offer your freelance services - even work remotely for states that recognize your certs.
Either way, you can scale yourself by using AI to do the initial work of generating a rough transcript of your clients’ depositions and examinations, and then simply auditing them for accuracy using the captured audio. Give clients a rough transcript immediately after the depo. Imagine being able to accept more jobs, offer more rush services, and offer realtime, every time, without any extra effort.
This is the perfect storm for anyone with an affinity for the law and tech: an industry where there are fewer people entering the profession, booming demand, and new, powerful tools to help you get more work done, wherever you want to work.
If you see the opportunity that we do, contact us.
[i] Court Reporters and Simultaneous Captioners: Occupational Outlook. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. [ii] Five Ways to Address the Stenographer Shortage. Speech to Text Institute. [iii] How Speech-Recognition Software Discriminates against Minority Voices. Scientific American. [iv] State Certification Requirements. National Court Reporters Association, and Court Reporting State Requirements. SimplySteno.com, and How to Become a Court Reporter. Magna Legal Services. 20 states are voluntary. [v] The Future of Digital Court Reporting. Legal Talk Network, and The Digital Answer to the Court Reporting Shortage. Law Technology Today.