Technological advancements in digital reporting and stenographer shortages are now impacting the legal market in all regions of the country. When markets become disrupted, it is always messy and confusing. However, what we see happening today is not the beginning stages of disruption, it is an inflection point indicating that changes in the market will begin to accelerate, eventually reaching a new and stable state once again – at least until the next disrupter hits.
This inflection can be thought of as the point where a technology or method transitions into the mainstream market. In the case of court reporting, digital reporting is expanding from the courtroom into the deposition room. Since depositions represent as much as two-thirds of the total court reporting market, this is a significant moment in the adoption cycle.
While digital reporting seems new to many in the legal market, it has been a standard part of courtroom infrastructure for years. Introduced into the courtroom in the mid-1990s, digital reporting is now installed and operating in nearly all jurisdictions in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Understanding the courts’ experience with digital reporting adoption can provide important insights into what to expect in the deposition market.
Stenographic courtroom reporters, referred to as officials, operate in a very different manner from deposition reporters. While the foundational skills can be employed in either environment, the processes and daily activities are quite different. This is true for digital reporting as well. The technology is basically the same whether it is being used in the deposition room or the courtroom, but the business processes are very different. These variations are driven by the fact that each market has its own requirements.
Digital reporting in the courtroom incorporates multiple microphones recording into at least four separate channels of audio. The microphones are connected to a mixing device that is often integrated with the courtroom’s public address system. The recording solution is configured to capture multiple channels of audio to accommodate several speakers in a large, open space. The system can also be installed in the room permanently, allowing cables and hardware devices to be affixed to set locations and concealed.
In a deposition setting, the recording solution must be portable and easily configured. Professional gear and multichannel recording software are still essential, but the size of the room and the number of speakers are usually more limited than in courtroom environments. Both deposition and the courtroom reporting systems should be operated by qualified reporters who know their equipment and understand procedures.
Early digital recording vendors understood and addressed the specific needs of the court. Systems were configured to accommodate the unique recording environment, and features were designed to meet the needs of judges, court monitors and transcribers. The market needs were studied, and a whole solution was delivered. Digital reporting will not be fully adopted in the deposition market until providers offer the broad legal community an equally comprehensive deposition solution. That solution must produce a timely and accurate record consistently, including written transcripts, without requiring significant changes in deposition procedures.
The courtroom experience has proven that, when managed properly, digital reporting can provide highly accurate transcripts in a tight time frame. Companies offering digital reporting of depositions must demonstrate the same success. As a buyer of deposition reporting services, you need to make sure that you are engaging professional firms that can provide quality service on a regular basis.
Creating a service that can produce an accurate record is the easy part; streamlining the reporting process and making sure that customers are completely comfortable with the method are the real challenges.
The courtroom market offered a number of advantages for the early technology providers. Court administrators were highly motivated by cost savings, which was a benefit digital recording could easily deliver. Court administration still had to make sure that digital recording met the requirements of the judges and other courtroom participants, but they were happy to advocate for modified business processes to achieve the anticipated cost savings.
Frankly, it was also an advantage that these court administrators were not indoctrinated into many of the legal industry’s long-established traditions and workflows. Viewing processes through fresh eyes allowed court administration to see the benefits of digital reporting quickly. And because court administration usually had direct influence over the rule-making process that can often impede adoption, rule and statute changes could be pursued efficiently when needed. The deposition market presents a much less centralized decision-making process and thus some unique challenges.
Courts have only their own set of rules to manage and the laws of just one state regarding issues such as reporter licensing. But providers and customers in the deposition market must navigate rules of civil procedures, licensing requirements and state laws from all over the country. National associations and service providers are working now to change antiquated rules and laws, but the process will take some time and leave practitioners and customers confused and hesitant in the interim. While this change is occurring, the best practice is to make it clear in a deposition notice that an alternative method of capture is being used and stipulate the same on the record.
Since court administration has full control over the physical infrastructure in their facilities, digital recording systems could be installed in an elegant manner. Depositions require portability and flexibility. Providers must rely on individual digital reporters to configure different rooms. The configurations must be able to capture audio and video accurately and not be intrusive for the participants. Technical and operational solutions can be deployed today, but the management of the process on a day-to-day basis is very new to the firms just entering the market.
The court market has one other advantage: the judge. Not to say that all judges were fully supportive of digital recording over the years, but their presence in the room was critical. Court administrators were able to focus 100% of their hiring and training efforts on recording and note-taking, leaving the judge to control courtroom behavior. That simplified things a lot. In the deposition world, your court reporting firm takes on some of that load.
Professional deposition reporters, whether digital or steno, know how to manage a deposition. They understand that they are officers of the court and responsible for the record of a deposition. That means that good reporters know how to manage attorneys and witnesses when they need to. That is not a skill that comes easily to a lot of people. Without the support of a judge in the room, all deposition reporters must know how to look after themselves and others. This is just one more reason why you should always rely on a reputable provider that can ensure that all the complex logistics for the deposition will be taken care of.
There are lots of court reporting firms introducing a digital reporting offering for depositions. Whether it is a new service or not, many of them do know what they are doing. But even the best of them would have to admit that there is more to learn.
The inflection point is upon us. Over the next few years, consumers of deposition services will see plenty of changes. Stick with your reliable and professional providers and you will be happy with the results. Your stenographic court reporter will probably be around for quite a while longer, but don’t be concerned about the future – it is bright and includes digital!
About the Author
Steve Townsend is CEO of TheRecordXchange, a web‐based platform for court reporting professionals. He has extensive experience in courtroom and hearing room reporting and transcription. He was CEO of FTR from 1997 to 2007 and CEO of AVTranz from 2008 to 2015. Townsend is a co‐founder of the American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers.