We recently had the chance to sit down with Phipps Reporting CEO, Christine Phipps, to discuss frequently asked questions.
Tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.
I am Christine Phipps, the CEO and founder of Phipps Reporting, a court reporting business. I have been a Registered Professional Reporter for 27 years and founded Phipps Reporting 10 years ago. In recent years, I have focused most of my time running and growing Phipps Reporting into the thriving enterprise it is today, as well as increasingly taking an active leadership role with the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA).
Can you explain to me how a stenograph machine works and the role of a stenographer?
A stenographer, often called a court reporter, listens to every syllable of every word that is said. That’s why we can write anything and everything, even things we have never heard of before, based on the sounds of what we hear. The stenographer’s keyboard is arranged very different than a standard keyboard, set up more to form syllables of the words we transcribe. The left-hand side of the keyboard is a combination of eight letters that make up the entire alphabet through combinations. At the thumbs are the vowels. The right-hand side of the stenographer’s keyboard is also virtually the entire alphabet. For instance, “cat” starts off with the left hand typing a “K,” and then an “A” with my thumb and a final “T” with my right hand.
The stenographer is a neutral, unbiased person within the “room” who writes everything said, which becomes the official transcript of proceedings. That is why the role of the stenographer remains as relevant and important today as in the past, even as technology has evolved over the last 10 to 20 years. People talk over each other, speak low or very fast, and have particular kinds of accents. Words can sound similar to each other. All of these elements and more have to be dealt with in creating a precise official record. All rooms carry sound differently, often with much background noise. Machines cannot address these challenges in real time with a high level of precision the way humans can. in addition, there’s more to speech than just the sounds coming out of a person’s mouth to form words and language. Sometimes, language is in the way people answer. Being able to construct where a comma goes or how to use the visual cues because they are in the room helps the stenographer as well.
To become a stenographer, is there schooling and/or a certification program?
It varies. You can go through technical school training, or others choose this career path after higher levels of education. For example, I have an associate’s degree in court reporting, while others may have a bachelor’s, master’s, or no degree. The point I want to make is that certain people are naturally gifted for court reporting, much like they may be in playing the piano or running the 50-yard dash in under six seconds. Somebody like me who’s a non-runner will never get to the 50-yard dash in six seconds, but I (or at least used to) can go toe-to-toe with most when it comes to speed and accuracy with a steno machine. I’ve seen people come out of technical school as quickly as six months to a year and become excellent reporters as the skills required are innate to them and they just take to it like a fish to water.
The long and short of it, is that there are many people who do not have a degree behind their names for court reporting, but they may be a naturally gifted and outstanding stenographer. So it’s all over the board, really. And at the end of the day, does somebody with an engineering degree have a more successful and productive career because they graduated magna cum laude? Or can the person who graduated with a 3.0 GPA accomplish more because of work ethic or their ability to function as a team player or to think creatively and outside the box? Success is a universal language.
NCRA certifies court reporters as to technical skill and knowledge. There are several tests that certify court reporters at different speed levels and proficiencies such as realtime or captioning. More than half the states across America require court reporters to be certified by NCRA. Florida does not require certification or licensure; however, we at Phipps Reporting set our own bar and require reporters to become certified.
What kind of background do you look for in a stenographer?
That’s the thing that sets Phipps Reporting apart. We are owned and operated by stenographers. I’m a stenographer, and my partner, Richard, is a stenographer. Not only are we both stenographers, but we’re also realtime stenographers. A realtime stenographer is the “crème de la crème” within this business because a realtime stenographer understands how to instantly write, so the text comes out virtually perfect and legible. We can deliver accurate transcripts in an hour, and we understand every aspect of what it takes to be a great court reporter. This is what separates us from other firms that may be owned by entities versus stenographers.
Typically, we know the court reporters who come to work here. We also have a pretty detailed vetting process to become a Phipps court reporter. Once we bring someone on for specific types of work, we have a quality control department that goes through their transcripts. Every court reporter’s initial transcript receives a full read, which allows us to quickly pick up on somebody’s skill set. Also, for those court reporters who want to work on realtime jobs at Phipps, they have to give us access to one of the jobs that they are writing live so we can look at the writing to see if the content and quality meet the high quality standards required by our firm. It is my name on the front door, so I take the vetting process for court reporters, and for all our employees, very seriously. Based on my experience in the industry, most court reporting companies do not perform either a live verification or note review of the professed skill set.
I have also been involved and chaired technology initiatives for the industry. I speak and lecture about technology and its impact on the industry, as well as being a software trainer for a brand of court reporting software. With both my steno, tech, and management experience, I know what to look for in others. I also pride myself in being able to help court reporters develop their skill so they can achieve their goals.
So, the court reporting methods in Florida, are they a lot different than other states, or is it pretty much the same across the country?
For the most part, court reporting methods are the same in all states. However, there are three different types of methods that can be classified as court reporting.
First and foremost, there’s stenography, which we have talked about previously, and the only method provided by Phipps Reporting.
Then there is also what’s called voice writing or mask reporters. This is where the reporter puts a mask over their face, and they talk into a microphone repeating the words they hear. So, their repeating of the words is akin to what we write on our stenograph machine. Since computers have gotten so much better, this technology has also improved. The art to voice writing or mask reporting is that nobody is supposed to be able to hear you, not even a whisper. You should never hear a voice or mask reporter because it’s a distraction to all involved with the proceeding. Voice writers are not very popular in Florida. I know of three in the state out of thousands of stenographers, but there are other states, such as Arkansas, North Carolina, and Georgia, where they are very popular, numbering in excess or equal to the number of stenographers.
The other method for making a record is electronic recording. This method was put into place or allowed in most states because recording systems were already in certain courtrooms for criminal and juvenile proceedings and later expanded to misdemeanor courts. However, electronic recording as a court reporting method has now made its way into the civil deposition ecosystem. Clients schedule proceedings with an expectation that a stenographer will be capturing the record, as they have been doing so for almost the last 100 years, and instead electronic recorder operators are being sent without the client’s knowledge. It is not until the client is receiving a final transcript with inaudibles and inaccuracies that they are first learning that there is a court reporting method called electronic recording.
Have you seen any specific instances where stenographers were negatively affected?
There are many aspects where stenographers have been negatively affected. First, because the client does not realize there is this electronic recording method, they assume it was a stenographer, thereby damaging the reputation of all stenographers. There are instances where stenographers report not receiving work as companies assign depositions to an electronic recorder operator.
What are the underlying issues of electronic recording?
I give seminars on this very subject because the end product in using electronic recording falls fatally below the gold standard of the stenographer. The perils of using electronic recordings is an issue that NCRA is working to educate the legal communities across the country about.
I recently wrote an article about why you should always hire a stenographic reporter. In the article, I lay out why you should use a stenographer instead of an electronic recorder operator. The article describes the key role of the stenographer and what we encounter in a deposition environment, such as people talking softly, loud air-conditioners that can snuff out voices, or people coughing or sneezing.
In the article, I also gave the example of singing a song you heard time and again on the radio for years, and then one day you see the lyrics and realize that you’ve been singing the wrong words all along. That’s how audio can be. As lay people, we listen to conversations every day of our lives and become attuned to hearing most of the words that people say in understanding what is being said. That is a very different thing to trained stenographers who listen to every syllable of every single word being said because one word can make the difference between “killing a sound” and “killing a hound.” When you’re talking about the record — and I don’t care whether you are talking about the smallest county court case that’s maybe fighting over $5,000 or if it is Apple fighting over trade secrets or some kind of technology rights — there are many things that get lost or incorrectly documented when they are being transcribed by a different person than the one who was actually in the room which is usually the case with electronic recordings.
At the end of the day, the record must matter. Every single word has significance when you are going to hold people accountable. If you’re going to make a decision whether somebody loses their life, whether a parent loses rights to their children, or whether a company is penalized for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, the record has to be accurate, and there is a right to the confidentiality of that information. In my view, when private information is fed into a technology system for processing and translation, internal controls are lost, and it is a violation of the very heart of the judicial system.
What do you think about automatic speech recognition (ASR) companies?
I think that, in general, consumers do not understand the technology. Most that are practicing law right now come from an age where the Internet came into being and have lived through an era of having permanently embedded in our brains the sound of a dial-up modem versus basically now holding the Internet in the palm of our hands. People hear ASR without a profound understanding for what that means. We have apps that do basic transcription and people make the leap to replacing stenographers, even though a stenographer will always be necessary because of the millions of proceedings that take place every day, in various nooks and crannies throughout the world, and no machine will ever be able to control human behavior in all these environments.
There are several ASR companies that are trying to make their way into the court reporting space. Some of these companies, especially the largest vendors, are trying to offer it as a service to pave the way for them to manage the mass quantity of electronic recordings that they have and the difficulties inherent in transcribing them in a timely, if not precise, way. The very basis of ASR is that the court reporting company takes the proceeding’s electronic recording and feeds it into a third-party software platform. The court reporting company thereby has relinquished control of the official record, often confidential in nature, to a third-party that is sometimes outside the confines of U.S. law. The recording is run through the ASR database many times over to improve quality, but it remains far below the accuracy standards of an experienced stenographer.
How, in your opinion, have you seen COVID-19 affect the space you’re in?
This is an example of how, because of COVID-19, an entire segment of our societal structure and economy, the justice and court system, was turned on its head. Whereas this legal activity took place principally in-person to the point of, for example, requiring a witness to be sworn in face-to-face, within weeks became an activity that occurred virtually. Some of the shortages that we discussed before regarding the stenographic industry has been greatly mitigated by the transition to remote legal proceedings.
For example, in Florida, our civil court systems do not have official court reporters. This means that legal counsel, whether they have a hearing or a motion, must hire a court reporter to report the proceedings if they want a record. There are no officials on the civil side of the justice system in Florida, except for the federal court. Prior to COVID-19, this system had great operational inefficiencies. For example, a civil judge will have something called a motion calendar, which are five-minute motions, and you could have a multitude of them set in front of a judge on any particular morning. In some counties, the judges start late or hearings run beyond the five minutes. Court reporting firms scheduled our reporter to cover something that should have finished at 9:30 a.m., and now it’s noon, they’re still there, and now unable to make the next matter they were scheduled to report.
Then it becomes, how do you charge your client for a five-minute motion? This may result in a client charge of roughly $1,000 because the lawyer prepared, drove there, and sat there for three hours waiting. The court reporter also sat there for three hours, getting their hourly fee, plus the cost of the transcript. Now, judges in each jurisdiction, and actually all over the world, are embracing remote. To be able to tap into a link and, especially if it is going long, to be able to switch another court reporter in or cover just a specific proceeding is a game changer.
Phipps has been doing remote court reporting for the past 10 years, covering proceedings all over the world including Qatar, Germany, Brazil, and Italy — I mean all over the world! There has always been video and video conferencing in our industry for the past 20 or so years, but we’ve had to work to get the legal industry to embrace the technological advancements of web conferencing.
When we started 10 years ago, the internet was not great. You would still get internet lag, but often it was better than traveling or a phone call where you can’t see participants or what is going on in the room. We have tried over the years to get our clients to embrace remote work to create a fair and equal playing field, but now, in the COVID-19 world, people have had to adopt virtual communication and remote proceedings as a mainstay to keeping their practices in business. And the unique thing is that for lawyers — I’ve watched it over my career — they can be very slow to embrace technology, usually behind the curve by a decade or two.
This is why the impact of the pandemic is going to change the way we do business for many years to come. What we witnessed in the first 60-day period of the pandemic was the complete evolution of the court reporting space. This was basically the equivalent of going from the old brick cellular phone to today’s iPhone in 60 days.
How long would it have taken for the entire litigation world to completely embrace remote if they had a choice? That would have taken probably another decade — and it happened here in 60 days. I do not want to say “never” because with 2020, it has been the slash and burn of never; however, I don’t think it has ever happened in the history of the world where anything has evolved in 60 days to that degree.