Court reporters in demand at California courthouses
Jotting down someone’s every word isn’t easy. It’s even harder when two people join the conversation. Or three. And they start arguing.
That’s life for Sonoma County’s unsung legal heroes — court reporters — a tight-knit group of professionals responsible for typing up everything that is said in trials and other proceedings to create the official record.
The 10 full-time and four part-time county court reporters are silent witnesses to both criminal and civil matters, providing real-time transcription to judges following on laptop computers.
When they’re not taking verbatim notes at more than 200 words a minute, they prepare thousands of pages of transcripts a year for private attorneys or use their unique skills to provide TV captioning.
“You can’t miss anything,” said Barrie Hart, a court reporter for 29 years. “It’s intimidating. The first couple months I worked I was scared to death. I thought I was going to throw up every day.”
A new study suggests court reporters like Hart will be in high demand in the next three years, leading to a nationwide shortage.
Market analysts Ducker Worldwide said 5,500 new court reporter jobs will be available by 2018 as older workers retire and leave the field. Seventy percent of the nation’s 32,000 court reporters are older than 45, the report said.
Demand is expected to be greatest in California and three other states.
That presents a kind of golden opportunity for people who might otherwise be considering a traditional four-year college education, said the National Court Reporters Association.
Court reporting students spend less than half the time in school and emerge with about a quarter of the student debt, according to another study.
With starting salaries in the mid-$40,000 range nationwide and considerably higher in parts of the Bay Area, it’s a viable alternative, said Sarah E. Nageotte, the association’s president.
“Students who graduate will hold more than a piece of paper,” she said. “They’ll hold a job.”
Those lucky enough to get hired in Sonoma County will be among the highest paid anywhere. The base salary is $92,000 a year plus thousands of dollars more for private transcription work, said Carlos Martinez, a longtime Sonoma County court reporter and president of the California Court Reporters Association.
Unlike other fields, court reporters own their work product and are free to sell it, he said.
“You can make up to half your salary or more,” Martinez said.
Sonoma County Superior Court is not currently hiring full-timers but is always recruiting for part-time help, which pays about $43 an hour.
Jose Guillen, the court’s chief executive officer, said reporters were laid off about six years ago because of state budget cuts.
In the future, legislation requiring court reporters in certain specialties like family law could increase demand, he said.
“They are pretty well-compensated but it is a truly grueling job,” Guillen said. “They earn every penny of it.”
For reporters in the criminal courts, the day starts about 8:30 a.m., often at a frenzied pace as defendants and their lawyers appear before judges.
They take their places beside the bench, tapping out proceedings on special shorthand machines and disappearing in chambers to record private talks involving judges and attorneys.
They have a front-row seat to murder trials and dramatic testimony.
Some have strategies to keep up with the court proceedings.
Hart channels her musical talents — she’s a blues singer and guitarist — to take it all down.
“There’s a rhythm to writing in shorthand,” she said. “It’s like playing an instrument.”
Martinez, an ex-construction worker whose wife is also a court reporter, said difficult names and technical terms can stump you.
“You ask for spelling and Google is your best friend,” he said.
And when two attorneys start talking over each other, he doesn’t hesitate to put the brakes on.
“It’s your absolute duty to tell them to stop or slow down,” Martinez said.
The courts have experimented over the years with electronic recording machines.
They are used in misdemeanor and civil courts. But many agree they can’t replace human counterparts.
Martinez said there are thousands of examples across the country where machines have failed, sometimes resulting in cases being retried.
“They’ve been talking about it for years,” Martinez said. “Technology is getting better and at some point may be a challenge to certain facets of the profession. But there will always be a need for court reporters just because of the human element.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.