Why the Court Reporting Business Will Never Be the Same

It was May 2012, and I was in the midst of the final interview to become the executive director of the National Court Reporters Association. I was running through a PowerPoint presentation that outlined what I saw as the priorities for the organization over the next five years.


I clicked forward to a slide of the Titanic and saw some confused faces among the NCRA board of directors sitting around me. “Assisting our schools with the recruitment of new stenography students must be our number one priority,” I said. “Until we get more steno students into schools, everything else is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

I landed the job, and I made good on my promise—the recruitment of steno students became our top priority. It was two years later that we published the Court Reporting Industry Outlook based on primary research conducted by a firm called Ducker Worldwide. In what would quickly become known as the “Ducker Report,” we put numbers around a trend that everyone in the court reporting business had seen coming for many years. By 2018, the demand for legal stenographers in the U.S. would exceed the supply by 5,500.

We found three key drivers of the predicted supply gap—a disproportionate number of stenographers reaching retirement age, a comparatively small number of stenographers entering the workforce, and a steadily increasing demand from the legal community for court reporters. We used the results from the Ducker Report at NCRA to fuel an aggressive recruitment campaign, dangling the promise of a lucrative career to prospective stenography students based on the 5,500 jobs that would be available.

But it was too late for anyone to veer the ship away from the approaching iceberg. The year 2018 has come and gone, and the predictions of the Ducker Report proved remarkably accurate. Stenographer recruitment efforts, however well-intentioned and coordinated, proved incapable of making a significant impact on enrollment in stenography schools. Figures recently published by the Speech to Text Institute (STTI) calculate that the supply gap of stenographers will double in size to 11,345 by 2023, grow to 18,447 by 2028, and balloon to 23,117 by 2033. The number of stenographers nationally—once more than 50,000—will dwindle to 23,100 by 2023, 17,260 by 2028 and a mere 13,900 by 2033.

The ship is taking on water. And in the lifeboats that are arriving to save the day are court reporters using digital reporting and voice writing as more-than-capable alternatives and supplements to stenographers.

Why is this happening and where does the industry go from here?

The crux of the stenographer shortage is this—according to STTI’s analysis, in each year for the next eight years, an average of 1,120 stenographers will retire, while no more than 200 new reporters will enter the workforce. This will reduce the number of stenographers by 920 annually at the same time that marketplace factors are likely to increase demand for court reporters.

Some point to spirited efforts to recruit new stenography students as a solution to the shortage. Such efforts are mathematically certain to have nothing more than a negligible impact on the number of new court reporters entering the marketplace. Here’s why.

Emerging from stenography school is difficult, as in really, really difficult. The standards of speed and accuracy that are necessary to pass state and national certification exams are extraordinarily stringent. That is why stenographic court reporters are justifiably and uniquely proud of the method they use to capture the record. The corresponding reality, though, is that fewer than one in 10 stenography students ultimately make it through training to become court reporters. In other words, for every single stenographer that a school produces, they must recruit 10 new students.

Extending the math demonstrates the magnitude of the problem. To fill the supply gap of 11,345 court reporters that the marketplace will face by 2023 with stenographers alone, schools would need to enroll 113,450 new stenography students. Right now, no more than 2,500 stenography students are enrolled across the entire nation.

By contrast, schools that teach voice writing (also known as “steno mask”) indicate that 80% of students emerge as court reporters on a timeline of nine months. And students who learn digital reporting (aka “digital recording”) can make it through their programs in about two months and with a success rate of about 90%.

All of this is why a number of court reporting schools that traditionally have taught stenography exclusively are now integrating voice writing and digital reporting into their repertoires.

As in the courts, a blended court reporting workforce is coming to depositions

The reality is that digital reporting and voice writing are not at all new to court reporting. It’s just that their application has been far more prevalent in courtroom settings than in depositions, while stenography has maintained something close to monopoly status in depositions. Stenography has dominated depositions for many reasons, including state requirements, but probably the most significant factor is the familiarity that attorneys and law firms have with stenography.

Stenographers also deserve enormous credit for setting and meeting the high thresholds of quality that characterize the deposition side of the marketplace, where transcripts of proceedings are more frequently requested and on tighter turnaround times. And while the courtroom application of digital recording over several decades has yielded inconsistent results in transcript quality, the advancement of digital audio recording, the importance of active monitoring of recording and the more careful installation of microphones and other equipment have proven to be the keys to success.

Another significant difference between courtrooms and depositions for court reporting is the prevailing free-enterprise system at play within depositions. Courtrooms, for the most part, are a captive market where parties have limited ability to make choices with regard to court reporting services. That is demonstrably not the case in depositions. That is sure to result in a higher level of quality in digital reporting used in depositions. Indeed, as digital reporters and voice writers show up with higher frequency in depositions, the compliments clients are paying to them as well as to their stenographer counterparts at the same time is that they never notice a difference.

Meanwhile, there are some who predicted the demise of stenographers as voice writers and digital reporters move into depositions and as other technologies such as automated speech recognition are knocking at the door. That is ludicrous. The aforementioned marketplace familiarity and corresponding affinity will keep stenographers of all ages employed for as long as they desire. Indeed, a diminishing supply of stenographers is sure to serve as a competitive advantage for those who remain in the workforce.

About the Author

Jim Cudahy is an association executive with a deep background in the legal field, most notably having served as executive director of the National Court Reporters Association and, now, for the Speech to Text Institute. Contact him on Twitter @jimcudahy.

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