This series of blogs is dedicated to answering all of your questions from our May 2020 webinar. The questions outlined in this series of blogs are all of the questions not addressed during the live event. We hope you will find these blogs informative. The questions were submitted by students from schools across the U.S. and Canada, and from every level of the court reporting program.
What are some specifics to look over/study for the Written Knowledge Exam?
What does the normal day of a freelance reporter look like compared to an official reporter?
As a freelance reporter, you typically receive your assignment for the next day the afternoon or evening before the assignment is confirmed. The scheduling team will typically provide you the necessary paperwork for that job with all of the pertinent information, e.g., location, starting time, the client, perhaps a notice of deposition, or maybe even a prior transcript from the same case so that you can build a job dictionary ahead of the job. It’s always a good idea to be at least 30 minutes early so that you have time to get your equipment set up, as well as account for any potential traffic delays that may affect your arrival time. You never want to be the reason a job gets started late.
Sometimes a client may have a reasonable estimate of how long a job will go, but asking them for that information doesn’t usually go over very well. The information you received from your scheduler may have an approximate duration on it, but it is exactly that, an approximation. Be prepared for every day to be a full day, so that if you need to arrange to have a child picked up from school or day care, those plans should be in place before the day begins. It is understandable that emergencies happen and sometimes the best-laid plans fall through, but if the scheduling department must find a replacement for you on a job more than once, it may be the last time you work with that agency.
As an official reporter your days will be much more structured. You will generally report to work at the same time every day, and after a few months on the job you will probably be assigned to a routine docket or courtroom. You will work with the same judge and clerk every day and typically develop a camaraderie as a team. If this type of routine is appealing to you, perhaps you should investigate if your local courthouse has any openings and what the hiring requirements are for those openings.
What would you find to be the most rewarding aspect of being a court reporter?
Only you can find the reward in your career, be it court reporting or anything else. The life you choose is what you make of it. High-quality reporters providing realtime and other value-added services have virtually no limits on what they can earn. They work very hard, have very little downtime, and employ scopists and proofreaders to ensure they are providing top-notch transcripts on time, while remaining available for additional work. They are team players. They know from time to time they will miss dinner outings, recitals, soccer games, etc., because they understand that they must fulfill obligations to their clients. Also remember, as a freelance reporter if you’re not working, you’re not making money. Does that mean that you must work all day every day? No. But have realistic expectations when providing your availability to an agency. Everyone wins when we are all on the same page.
But the rewards don’t simply equate to how much money you can make. Court reporters learn something new almost every day by meeting people from all walks of life. It’s also rewarding to know that your skills are part of our judicial system and can have far-reaching impact, e.g., perhaps testimony you reported helps a jury find a defendant guilty, or awards millions of dollars to a plaintiff, or rules in favor of a civil defendant. Many freelance reporters will tell you that the variety of cases they write throughout their careers is also incredibly rewarding, always keeping the work interesting and diverse. And let’s not forget that you are part of an elite team of specialists in our field which brings with it much pride if you hone your craft every day.
How easy or realistic is it to maintain a steady work schedule that is not full time?
As an independent contractor, you decide your schedule. If you are working with just one agency, it is probably most helpful to that agency if you work the same days each week, though if the schedule is slow those particular days you have agreed to work, know that you may end up with no job on a given day. The best advice here is to remain flexible, if possible. Maybe instead of limiting yourself to specific days of the week, perhaps you could tell the agency that you are available three days a week and let them decide where to use you with those parameters. You have less control this way, but you are still available to cover where the scheduling staff needs the most help. If you have no obligations outside of work, this may be the most advantageous for you. However, if you have regular weekly obligations, this may not be the best route for you or the agency. First and foremost, try to be consistent.
What is a rough average percentage that employers keep when a court reporter works for a freelance firm?
While the “percentage of billing” model has been around for many years, most agencies now simply tell you what they will pay you per page for the various types of jobs. For example, a doctor or other expert deposition will pay an upcharge on the base page rate; expedited delivery provides upcharges based on the number of days the job is rushed; videotaped jobs provide a per-page upcharge, etc. So how do you know if the page rate the agency pays you is competitive for your market and skill sets? Sometimes other reporters will tell you what they are paid per page; others keep their compensation confidential. Know this: Any agency not paying a fair page rate is unveiled quickly. Perhaps a good gauge is to investigate how long an agency has been in business and speak with reporters who have worked with them.
How many entries should most beginning and seasoned reporters have in their dictionary? And do you systematically build it, or is it just job by job?
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. The answer lies in how consistent a writer you are. Before adding an entry to your dictionary, ask yourself, is this outline defined as anything else? Do I routinely write this the same way, even if it isn’t perfect? If your answer is “no” to part one, and “yes” to part two, then make the entry.
Dictionary maintenance should be a daily occurrence no matter how long you are reporting. You can use job dictionaries when working a case on multiple days or with multiple witnesses, but then go through that dictionary and determine if there are words in there that should be in your main dictionary and add them as you go. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to have a working dictionary; the size is not of concern. It needs to work for you. So if you are a consistent writer, maybe your dictionary won’t be hundreds of thousands of entries. If not, then expect your dictionary to be larger.
What do you look for when making a new hire? Is there anything besides attitude that makes someone really stand out?
Before addressing the attributes of what constitutes a “standout,” let’s first clarify nomenclature. Some court reporters, both official and freelance reporters, are classified with the courts and some agencies as “employees.” Others are classified as “independent contractors.” If you work as an employee, the agency collects taxes from your paycheck and may offer a benefits package as well. If you work as an independent contractor, you are required to pay your own income taxes. Check out this recent podcast episode aimed at independent contractors outlining the benefits of working with QuickBooks Self-Employed and how to get your bookkeeping records in order right out of the gate.
Take a look at this recent blog article about Finding the Right Agency. Inside this article we touch upon those characteristics that agencies look kindly upon; for example, promptness not only on the job, but also prompt responses to calls and e-mails, dressing professionally, arriving early to your assignment, being a team player, turning in an accurate transcript – on time every time. Attitude can work against you if not portrayed in the proper light, so check your ego at the door and let your skills and professionalism speak for themselves.
What are your work hours?
In the freelance world, there is no easy answer to this question in that jobs are scheduled at any hour of the day. It is typical for jobs to run anywhere from 8:00 a.m. all the way through 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. It is simply a matter of when a witness is available and if all counsel can arrange their schedules accordingly. This all goes back to how often you want to work – do you want to write all day? Or are you more comfortable with writing shorter jobs, say two hours? Keep the dialogue open with the scheduling team and you should be able to find a happy medium that is beneficial for you and also for the agency. Working hours are more structured in an official position, though you may find yourself staying late into the night if a jury is deliberating a verdict.