Christine Phipps left a job in banking and became a court reporter 27 years ago because she wanted to be her own boss in a flexible job that paid well while she raised her three children.
In 2010 Phipps started her own firm, Phipps Reporting, at her home in North Palm Beach and today has 110 freelance court reporters in Florida who work exclusively for her firm, which has 81 employees in 13 offices throughout the state and one in Milwaukee.
“I have been a single mom most of my career. I have put my kids through college. I have changed generations off that 22-key machine,” Phipps said, referring to the stenographs that are standard equipment in courtrooms.
Court reporters capture the spoken word in court proceedings, from depositions to motion hearings and trials, as well as in other settings and convert it to written transcripts. The stenograph, also called a writer, allows them to type the way a word sounds phonetically. Court reporting requires a two-year degree and countless hours of practice.
Phipps Reporting, headquartered in West Palm Beach, is ranked 150th on Inc. Magazine’s annual list of Florida’s fastest-growing private companies. The company has made the list every year since 2014 and is the only business in the court reporting industry statewide that is on the list and the only business from the legal category in Palm Beach County.
As president of the 14,000-member National Court Reporters Association, Phipps is a strong advocate for the industry. The NCRA was founded 121 years ago.
One of her biggest concerns is the inaccurate perception by some that stenographic court reporters can be replaced by audio recording devices. Electronic recording companies have been sending workers to courtrooms for the last 15 years, and sometimes, even the attorneys do not realize what’s happening, Phipps said. She speaks to bar associations and other groups about the issue.
“Every single word matters. The difference between hearing a ‘can’ and a ‘can’t’ when people are speaking quickly could mean the difference between someone getting life or death,” Phipps said. “It could mean the difference between a mother losing her children or not, and everything there in between. That is a heavy duty responsibility.”
So, Phipps said, it’s vital to accurately capture every word. Audio recordings that are then transcribed by automatic speech recognition software can fall short of that goal and can be filled with notations that a word or words were “inaudible,” she added, or the transcript can be inaccurate in other ways.
Audio recordings can also be manipulated so that a word can be retyped to make it look like the speaker said something that he or she did not, said Phipps.
“Obviously, that is a concern for national security. The judicial system is going to have to eventually understand technology and the pitfalls,” Phipps said “The lawyers are always surprised when I say this is going on. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Another risk is that the audio recording filled with sensitive, personal information about everything from patents to details about a divorce goes into a cloud-based database that can potentially be hacked.
Phipps said a court reporter’s trained ear and skills are essential to the judicial process because the reporter captures every word and notes who is saying what, even when multiple people are all talking at once. She’s been in courtrooms where as many as 17 different people are taking turns speaking, with rapid-fire exchanges between the judge, the clerk, numerous attorneys and witnesses.
“I call it a blanket of freedom coming out of our machines. It is the threads of the judicial system. In an adversarial proceeding, I am the neutral person keeping track of what everybody said and what everybody is going to be held accountable to at the end of the day,” she said.
“You will never be able to replace the court reporter with a recording, or SIRI or whatever it is, because you will never be able to control people. There are millions and millions of these proceedings taking place across the country on any given day,” Phipps said.
During a proceeding, the court reporter hears ambient room noise, such as when doors slam and encounters people who intentionally talk softly or under their breath, thinking the court reporter will not be able to hear their words.
“Once we are on the record, we are on the record. We feel a strong sense of duty. We regard ourselves as quasi-judicial officers,” she said.
That sense of duty builds trust that Phipps said has been critical to her business strategy.
“I decided to grow my business, from the very beginning, both organically and through acquisition. Court reporting is relationship-based. We have relationships with lawyers. They trust us because they have seen our work product,” Phipps said.
Within six months of starting the business, she acquired another court reporting firm, and has bought another 12 companies since then. Phipps Reporting now has a network of 2,000 court reporters and 500 affiliate firms across the country.
“One of the huge companies was going after me to try to stop me from going into business, but it didn’t work so well. I quickly grew the business. It was a lot to figure out,” she said.
Along with court reporting, her company competes by offering the same services as the largest firms, such as videography, interpreting and process serving.
Phipps Reporting has embraced technology and has offered remote litigation support for 10 years, so it already had the tools and technology in place when the pandemic and the switch to remote court proceedings began a year ago.
Phipps said the remote hearings are expected to continue, especially for short hearings, because it’s a more economical use of the participants’ time. For example, instead of an attorney having to drive from West Palm Beach to Miami, parking and going into the courthouse, taking as many five hours out of his or her day, the remote hearing takes only a few minutes.
For decades, the court reporting industry consisted of mom-and-pop firms who had built relationships with lawyers in various types of practices.
In 1997 a company came to Fort Lauderdale and bought up five firms. Today private equity firms own a number of court reporting firms with revenues of $150 million to $350 million.
“I have only acquired companies that align with my principles and ethics because I care about those things. I care about the culture of my business,” Phipps said. “I care more about those things than I ever did about making money.
“We have major private equity companies trying to send in people to just record, and the lawyers don’t even realize it is going on,” Phipps said.
“It was about building something I wanted to work for, a place for stenographers to work so they did not have to work for these companies that are doing the wrong things by the profession,” she said. “We are just creating a huge mom and pop that gives personal services and is owned by stenographers, not by private equity.”
Court reporters work as freelancers, and in some states may freelance for three to five different agencies. In Florida court reporters tend to work for just one because they make more money that way.
“We can assign them a job. They may only make $100 that day. The next day, they could get a job making $5,000,” Phipps said.
The more lucrative jobs involve proceedings where court reporters provide iPads to counsel who receive a live feed of the transcript as they sit in court. They are charged a fee for the real time plus a daily copy. The morning’s testimony is captured and by 1 p.m. the attorneys will have a transcript of that.
“That way they are able to cross-examine the witness with the actual certified, signed-off transcript testimony that was taken in the morning. Those are advances in technology that have just become game changes in litigation” she said.
“When they go up to argue at sidebar, they are taking their iPad with them and having a discussion about whatever was just said,” Phipps said.
The speed is possible because the court reporter’s stenograph is communicating with a computer at the end of the conference room table and feeding it live.
She compares the court reporting process and the technological advances over the years to cars, which have also been around for many years, and have constantly been improved.
Phipps plans to continue growing her company and hopes to acquire additional firms out of state.
“The stenographer is the gold standard for capturing the records. That is what has been in the courtroom for 120 years,” Phipps said.
Image credit to Thomas Cordy from The Palm Beach Post