On the record Court Reporting
They sit quietly in the corner, their fingers flying across the small, boxy keyboard. Two hundred words a minute, if not more. Their faces are blank, expressionless and impartial. On many occasions, attorneys and witnesses may even forget that there is someone in the room recording every spoken word. But ask court reporters what they’d like to say to the attorneys whose questions they record, and the response is uniform.
“How much time do you have?” laughs Doris Pfeiffer, a reporter with approximately 23 years experience. There are many players in the judicial system, but few are as overlooked by the others as court reporters. Judges wield considerable power and influence, the attorneys play off one another, and the clients pay the bills. The reporter sits alone. Cheri Laman, part owner of Q & A Court Reporters, Inc. in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, admits that as a court reporter she prefers to remain part of the woodwork. “I didn’t become a court reporter to talk, ” she says.
However, Laman and thousands like her play a vital role in many court proceedings or depositions. That’s the most important thing for practitioners to remember, says Pfeiffer. “Remember we’re there, and our job is to preserve the record.” In a newsletter article for the Texas Court Reporters Association, Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson writes about preparing an appeal in a case where the taped audio record of the proceedings had failed to pick up approximately 50% of certain “mandated bench conferences.” Having a record of these conferences “was critical because it was obvious from the context of the rest of the proceedings that what transpired at the bench was important to our case.”
Justice Hankinson managed to preserve certain issues for appeal in her case. Other parties are not so fortunate, and find their transcript riddled with “inaudible” references at critical moments. Or what they thought were clear answers to their questions are actually lost in a dizzying maze of overlapping and disjointed remarks by a chorus of parties. Most court reporters contend that a few simple steps not only make their job easier, but more importantly, make the record clearer.
“We don’t make the record, ” says Mary Burzynski.“Attorneys make the record, we keep it. If they’re not doing their job, we can’t do ours.” These are a few practical tips to avoid appearing inarticulate and ineffectual in print.
Speak Clearly, Forget About the Stick
If they can’t hear you, all the clever questions in the world end up as “inaudible” in a transcript. Michael E. Miller, a freelance reporter in the Dallas area, defines getting beaten up as “what illiterate witnesses and inarticulate attorneys do to court reporters.” Court reporters are generally reluctant to interrupt an attorney or a witness to ask that they speak up for fear of disturbing a train of thought. In fact, Mary Burzynski says that while “anger may be too strong a word” to describe attorneys she has interrupted, they are often ““put out” by it. Why? “They don’t want to spoil the flow.”
Even when attorneys are apologetic, it doesn’t always last. “If a judge asks them to speak up, they stay more aware of what they’re doing, ” says Laman. “If I mention something, they’re so focused that a few minutes later they’re right back doing the same thing.” The worst offenders are attorneys who talk too fast or too softly (didn’t your mother tell you not to mumble?). Laman says she’s never had to ask an attorney to be quiet. Even when the parties are yelling at each other, her only concern is that she might “miss something” in the testimony.
Read It, Don’t Eat It
People often launch into overdrive when asked to read something from a written document. Laman says it’s not really the speed that’s the problem, but that when people talk so fast they don’t speak as clearly. “Don’t mumble. Slow down and enunciate those words.” Another option is to provide the reporter with a copy so that they can check their notes against the document. Lynn Brooks, author of The Deposition Handbook, writes of an attorney who actually provided a special set of confidential exhibits specifically for the reporter. They could be referred to during transcription, and then destroyed. According to Brooks, this attorney “had the best grasp of reporter problems of any attorney I’ve ever met.”
Shop Talk is Great if You Know the Lingo
Code words aren’t limited to the military or teenagers. Virtually every profession has its own specialized terminology. This is especially true of doctors, and for most court reporters medical depositions can be among the most difficult. Pfeiffer says that ““big or complicated cases” pose problems for reporters simply because they come in unaware of the specialized lingo the witness may use. “Plus, in medical malpractice cases there are many similar terms” that can throw a reporter off during transcription.
For example, what on earth is hydroxyacetyl-aminofluorene? According to Miller, it’s not just a term he put on his website or his Depoman T-shirts. “It all stems from the depo I had the misfortune of taking of an industrial chemist who could say ‘that word’ like it was one syllable, ” he says.
Each issue of the Journal of Court Reporting devotes numerous pages to technical terms, jargon, and acronyms from various fields. For example, did you know that BITE stands for Built-In-Test Equipment or that CDR could be a reference to either Continuous Data Recording or Critical Design Review? According to the April 2000 issue of JCR, these are standard aviation acronyms. Then there are factitious disorders, folie a deux, eidetic image, dyscalculia, dysphoria, or hyponophobia (all of which are “common psychology terms, ” says the January 2000 issue of JCR). They are also phrases court reporters might encounter without warning in the middle of a deposition.
The problem is that when it comes time to prepare that transcript (overnight, of course), court reporters are often at a lost for how to properly display industry jargon, medical terms, legal citations, or even proper names. The solution? Pfeiffer suggests a “crib sheet” or word index that could be given to the reporter in advance. Sheila Atkinson-Baker, president of Atkinson-Baker, Inc., writes that attorneys could also let the reporting agency know that a deposition might call for expertise with particular terminology. Even simply having the witness spell, define, or otherwise explain such specialized terms would go a long way in clarifying the record, not only for the court reporter but anyone else who might be required to read the transcript.
Put It On Paper or It Won’t Get There
Lots of things get lost in the transition to paper. For example, body language or gestures cannot be recorded. The National Court Reporters Association’s Making the Record brochure suggests that a simple phrase like “let the record show” can easily clarify every gesture a witness might make. Mary Burzynski concurs, and suggests that too often an attorney will simply hand a witness a document, point to it, and say “You mean this here?”