York County court reporter wants more people to have her job

Maria Yohn
York Dispatch
York County Chief Court Reporter Christine Myers shows the unmarked keys of the stenotype machine she uses in York County Judicial Center courtrooms Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. She says there is a shortage of people in her field. Bill Kalina photo

It's National Court Reporting and Captioning Week, but across the nation, there are fewer court reporters to celebrate it.

Established by the National Court Reporters Association in 2013 and held annually during the week of Feb. 14 to 20, it is dedicated to celebrating the work that court reporters, also known as court stenographers, do and their indispensability to the legal profession.

However, the association is facing an uphill struggle as educational institutions rapidly eliminate court-reporting programs because of lack of interest, and courts around the country delay important proceedings because of their inability to find a court reporter.

York County: York County chief court reporter Christine Myers is well aware of the looming dearth of court reporters in the legal system, but she says that York County, which currently employs 19 full-time court reporters, has not been affected at this point. 

"We have a couple of really good freelancers that we can call upon to help out when there are vacations, a death in the family, etc," she said.

However, she predicts changes in the next few years as two or three official court reporters are expected to retire along with several court reporters she knows in the freelance world. Meanwhile, the county's 14 judges will continue to be very busy on the bench. 

"There will be plenty of jobs in this area, but there is also a growing need across Pennsylvania and into Maryland," she said. 

York County Chief Court Reporter Christine Myers shows how she uses a stenotype machine for shorthand use during court hearings.

Effects: A report commissioned by the National Court Reporters Association in 2014 predicted that an estimated 5,500 new court reporter jobs would be available by 2018 in the United States and that demand for court reporters would likely exceed the supply. Myers said that the position of court reporter was recently listed in Forbes Magazine's list of top 20 jobs to get.

According to the NCRA, criminal proceedings are already being delayed in certain states because of the court-reporting shortage.  The NCRA reports that the future of the profession looks even more dire as enrollment and  graduation rates continue their free fall and court reporting schools close as a result.

Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that the population of court reporters is aging, as 70 percent of court reporters are now 46 years of age or older.

Myers has personally noticed the changes that have occurred over the past 10 to 15 years in her field, and she noted that far fewer schools are available that offer court reporting programs.

Myers experienced the frustration personally when she became involved in a court reporting program at HACC started by court reporter Annette DeWald, who retired in 2016. The program lasted from 2004 until 2012 but was discontinued because of the lack of enrollment.

The nearest school that offers a court reporting program is the Community College of Allegheny County, located near the University of Pittsburgh. It is the only school that offers the program in Pennsylvania, Myers said.

However, many students take online classes now, and they can find them through the National Court Reporters Association website, www.ncra.org, she said. If a student chooses to pursue an online program, she recommends finding a mentor by contacting local court reporters.

One cause: Myers attributes the court-reporter shortage to a variety of causes, but one of the most prominent is its lack of recognition in high school guidance offices. High school counselors have been encouraging students to pursue four-year degrees, she said, but not making them aware of potential careers that require only two-year degrees, such as court reporting. 

"I think that's a huge part of it. They're just not emphasizing that," she said. 

How to become a court reporter: According to Myers, those who are interested in pursuing a career in court reporting must enroll in a program, which lasts from 18 months to two years.  

The first six months of the program usually involve learning how to write shorthand, and Myers emphasized that all court reporters must write verbatim and phonetically, which requires them to divorce themselves from traditional spelling when covering a proceeding. 

After learning shorthand, the emphasis shifts to improving speed, she said.

It also behooves students to learn medical and criminal terminology, as they will be hearing those words in the courtroom, and when studying for an associate's degree, classes in criminal justice and forensics can help. 

In order to graduate, students must pass an exam in which they take dictation at least 225 words a minute for question-and-answer sessions for five minutes.

The second portion of the test is called the literary section, and the student must take dictation at 180 word per minute for five minutes. The literary section tests the student's ability to correctly report speeches.

All portions of the test must be passed with 95 percent or above accuracy, she said. 

Many counties recommend that court reporters be certified through the National Court Reporters Association. According to Myers, York County highly recommends it but does not require it. 

Opportunities: After graduation, the prospective court reporter has a few options, Myers said.

Some might choose the official route by applying at a courthouse, and after they are hired, they will be assigned to a courtroom. Official court reporters usually start at $40,000 to $50,000 per year, she said, and have the advantage of set hours, job stability and medical benefits.

However, many court reporters choose freelancing, as it offers a more flexible schedule, more travel and the prospect of earning as much money as they are willing to work for, she said. The downside is that there are no benefits, but freelancing is ideal for individuals who wish to spend more time with their families.

According to Myers, it's possible to work two days a week and earn a healthy income, while she knows some court reporters who are ambitious enough to bring in six-figure salaries. 

Technology: Technology has had a massive impact on the court-reporting field as court reporters can now hook into a laptop, run their transcript through the court internet system and have it arrive at the judge's office with only a three-second delay.

It also has expanded opportunities in real-time translation for the hearing-impaired, a service that court reporters have used in the York County courthouse.

Myers cited one case where she offered the service during a divorce hearing for a woman who had lost her hearing. Myers transcribed the proceedings in real time for the woman so she knew exactly what everyone was saying as they were saying it. 

"It was a tremendous help for her," she said.

Myers said that, although many people don't make the association, court reporters can do closed-captioning, often for news and TV shows, and some do so either as a full-time career or for extra money on the side.

Usually, four hours  of the eight-hour day are actually spent taking dictation while the other four hours are used for research to ensure names and locations are correct.

Spreading the word: Myers said that court reporting remains mysterious to the public, as they are mainly seen as the individuals situated near the judge and typing at breakneck speed. She wants adults and particularly students who have not settled on a career to know that court reporting offers a high salary and only requires a two-year degree. 

"Many students graduate from college with a four-year degree and don't make the same amount of money or can't get a job," she said.