The COVID-19 Pandemic and National Court Reporter Shortage:
A Perfect Storm for Innovation and Augmentation
For many decades, the demand for in-person court reporting was powered by the rules of evidence. In order for testimony and/or exhibits to be admissible in a court proceeding, a certified court reporter had to be physically present to verify everything. In the last few years, however, this precedent has been upended by the confluence of two trends – one biological, and totally unforeseeable, and the other a long, obvious time coming with multiple contributing factors. The industry’s reaction to this change serves as both a model for innovation and augmentation as well as a good, close look at what the future may hold.
Let’s begin with the biological change
The COVID-19 pandemic, which at the time of this writing, is responsible for 7.9 million cases and over 210,000 deaths in the United States alone. COVID-19 has completely reshaped the traditional in-person model of courtroom proceedings and court reporting. Lawyers, judges, court reporters and clients alike have embraced remote technologies making the new normal virtual – and the numbers show it. According to the Michigan Supreme Court, as of July 2020, Michigan courts had already logged more than 500,000 hours of online hearings and proceedings since March 2020. At the beginning of the pandemic in March of this year, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order directing courts in all 254 counties to allow (or require) remote participation in all proceedings. They reported that between March 24 and June 1, the system had already held about 122,000 remote hearings. Peter J. Giammanco, CSR No. 6810, RPR, CRR, CLR, Chief Strategy Officer and President of U.S. Legal Support, observed, “The explosion of the demand for remote proceedings was completely unprecedented – as was the pandemic itself. Courts across the country began experiencing a backlog of cases and had no choice but to move proceedings remotely to keep the wheels of justice turning.”
For many attorneys, it’s been seven months or more since they’ve attended any kind of meeting, presentation or court proceeding in person. And, therefore, the same is true for many court reporters. Says Tifani Goetsch, CSR 10406, CLR, “My workload is now completely virtual. I haven’t covered an in-person deposition since March. While definitely an adjustment at first, I have experienced benefits of the new remote world, including a now non-existent commute. Working remote has allowed me to take on jobs that I wouldn’t have usually considered due to their locations.“
The National court reporter shortage
The industry has also been grappling with another, more insidious trend, which is an ongoing and worsening shortage of Certified Shorthand Stenographers. This began long before COVID-19 – the National Court Reporters Association first recognized the potential for a shortage back in 2013. The numbers are alarming: there was a national shortfall of 5,500 reporters in 2018, which is projected to grow to over 33,000 in 2033. To put that in context, to overcome the impact of this shortage, the industry needed at least 82,000 new students to have enrolled in training programs by 2019. The actual number enrolling each year? About 2,500. Simple math tells the story here – and it doesn’t look good.
Perhaps inevitably, technology has stepped in over the years to help fill this gap, which has gone from a gradually increasing opening to, due to COVID-19, a Grand Canyon-sized chasm. With a backlog of cases due to court closures, the sudden, urgent need for tools to facilitate virtual depositions has created an uptick in the use and acceptance of digital reporting. Peter J. Giammanco continued, “I think the court reporting industry has been preparing for technological advancement for years. While stenography is the gold standard for reporting, we’re all acutely aware of the national court reporter (stenographer) shortage. With the introduction of new technologies, including remote depositions and digital reporting, we’ve been able to continue to serve our clients during changing circumstances. Regarding the pandemic, I would say the industry has done a fantastic job of quickly adjusting to the new normal of remote proceedings. The willingness to learn and adapt has been amazing to witness and be a part of. We’re constantly working with reporting professionals on ways to refine the remote deposition process to make it easier on them and our mutual clients.”
Regardless of methodology, the highest calling of a professional reporter is the preservation of the record. The finished product produced by an AAERT (American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers) certified electronic reporter – a verbatim transcript – offers the same deliverables as those provided by traditional stenographic reporters and voice writers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a kind of accelerant for the adoption of technology across the legal industry. Innovation that was already underway sped up dramatically. As litigation is not slowing down, remote depositions and digital reporting can help address the industry’s chronic shortage of reporters and can provide an attractive alternative when cost is an issue or a stenographer isn’t available. Amidst considerable changes, one thing remains clear – the role of the reporter is more central, versatile and important than ever. Whether they’re physically present or remotely present, a court reporter is still the foundation and the retaining wall for proceedings and will be for a long time to come.