Life as a freelance court reporter…

I am delighted to introduce today’s fascinating guest post from Cheryll Kerr, a freelance court reporter from America who has taken depositions far and wide – from Europe to the Middle East, as well as in the States. This high-powered job requires incredible skills – I’ve seen them in action and I was amazed.

How did you get interested in court reporting?

I didn’t start out planning to be a court reporter.  I was a ballet dancer working at a law firm in San Francisco, CA doing temp work that fitted in with my class, rehearsing and performing schedule.  I sat in my cubicle doing accounts receivable work, when one day in the early  ‘90s I heard an ad for a reporting school that happened to be down the street from where I worked.  There are very few court reporting schools in the USA, and I now see it as sort of fate stepped in and led to me going to night school to get my reporting qualifications.  At the time, I thought it would be the perfect flexible job to allow me to dance when I liked and work in between.  It turned into a lifestyle that I love, that allows me to work about 4-8 days a month and lets me keep busy with my other interests in between.

How do you keep your concentration?

It’s a skill, like anything else.  I think I was very lucky to stumble upon an industry that’s based upon the instinctual skills I used as a dancer.  You hear the music, and you respond.  You hear the voices, and you respond.  To me, it’s second nature.  It can be tough to pay attention when the rigors of the physical exertion set in and your neck, back, and/or hands are burning from repetitive stress injury, arthritis, or simply sore muscles from a previous day’s work.  At that point, experience and training kick in, and you do what you have to do.

What’s the workload like for a court reporter?

That really varies depending upon what part of the industry you work in.  There are reporters who work in courthouses on trials that work day in and day out, eight hours a day and then at night on transcript production as well.  I chose to become a freelance reporter because I wanted to set my own schedule, which translates into taking four to eight jobs a month for me.  The economy has hit a downturn across the United States, which means where I used to be offered perhaps 15 days of work a month, now it’s closer to what I like to do, four to eight days.

I remember the days when I would get up at 6:00 a.m. to drive into Manhattan and wouldn’t arrive back home until well after 8:00 at night, and then turn around that day’s work before I turned in at midnight and would wake up the next morning to do the same thing.  Those were the days of the back to back asbestos litigation depositions, which made being a freelance reporter very lucrative.  I was younger then, and hungry for the work.  After 15 years of it, I prefer now to take depositions closer to home and be able to cook dinner and enjoy a nice bottle of wine with my loved one and sleep in the next day.  Time will do that to you.  I heard some years back from another reporter who gave up reporting to work for an agency that court reporters tend to burn out after five years or hit a plateau.  I think I might be unique in that it took me about 10 to hit a period where I needed a change or a very long vacation.  Luckily, working as a freelance reporter gives you the flexibility to slow down a little when you need to.

What sort of thing makes your work more difficult?

Physical pain is probably the bane of my existence in terms of what makes my work difficult.  I have degenerative disc disease in my lower back, and have had several car accidents that left me with whiplash and bulging discs in my cervical spine and lower back that can make it difficult for me to sit more than an hour to an hour and a half without a short break to rest and stretch.  Attorneys rarely want to take a break when they are deep into exploring an exhibit with a witness or trying to get the answers they want.  All you can do is wait until you think the attorney is about ready to go to the next exhibit, and whisper that you need to take a short restroom break.

Second only to the physical stress of the job for me would be dealing with the difficulties of hearing the attorneys accurately.  The lawyers aren’t thinking about how they sound to the reporter, whether they are enunciating clearly and speaking loud enough so that every nuance of their question is audible.  They are thinking about the answer they want to hear and what approach to take to get it.  My personal pet peeve is when an attorney leans his mouth on his hand with his elbow on the table.  As soon as the hand touches his face, especially if it covers his mouth partially or fully, the volume level shifts.  That also happens when someone is speaking and they turn their head away from you to another direction.  It seems like a very small detail, but it can be critical when the witness does it, which is exactly what happens when the lawyer facing them starts to do it.  It’s funny, but true.  If a lawyer speaks is facing the witness, asking questions in a soft voice, and puts his hand on his mouth, the witness will inevitably start unconsciously mimicking him.  I’ve seen it a hundred times.

Lawyers arguing with each other in colloquy also make it very difficult to do my job.  A lot of reporters have told me they don’t interrupt as often as they should, for fear of angering the client.  I do it whenever I feel it’s necessary as the keeper of the official record.  It’s far more important to me to control the atmosphere in the room to enable everyone to make their statements and get the questions and answers on the record.  It’s not always a pleasant task, but it falls under the category of doing what must be done.  In the end, reading the transcript, the client will be thankful that what was said was taken down accurately and efficiently.

What do you like about your job?

I love not having to show up at the same location at 9:00 a.m. every day.  The monotony of a desk job nearly killed me in the 1990s when I was going to school at night.   I know very few people who don’t have to set the alarm clock during the week.  I can sleep until noon most of the week, although I try not to.  I’m not much of a morning person, but I’d like to be 😉

Another aspect of the job that I really enjoy is the fact that almost every job I take entails learning something new about a topic I enjoy.  We hear bankers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and experts in many, many fields talk about state of the art and their expertise in fascinating subjects.  What a fabulous way to study and learn without having to attend a university for the rest of your life!  It can also be very rewarding to sit and listen to people talk about their life stories, which is basically what personal injury cases are all about.  They ask the same questions to start off with – where were you born, tell me about your family, where did you go to school and what types of work have you done.  It is a little like reading a new novel every time I swear in a new witness.  I find it very satisfying, and sometimes even more so than a soap opera.

What are some of your most memorable moments as a court reporter?

Hm, that’s a hard question.  I remember working on several arbitrations that lasted probably around a year each, and I worked harder than I ever had in my life.  At the end of the very last session, the lead arbitrator usually gives a closing speech on the record and thanks everyone for their hard work, and if you’ve done a good job, they usually acknowledge it in front of the attorneys.  I have to say, it may be just lip service, but it feels good to have the attorneys all join in and say “Oh, yes, thank you, Ms. Court Reporter.   We really appreciate all of your hard work!”

You rarely hear when your hard work has been appreciated, and only hear about the things clients are displeased with.  I suppose the high points of my career personally have been when the agency emails or calls me and tells me the client called in to praise my work or just tell them how happy they are with the services I’ve provided.  It does happen, and it is always extremely rewarding to hear that in an industry that is extremely competitive and constantly changing, there are still clients who still value quality and dedication enough to point it out when they know you’ve gone beyond the call of duty.

The most memorable experiences I’ve had as a court reporter are probably the ones I had when I was living in London and working in Europe, the UK, and the Middle East.  Traveling internationally for work is not always as glamorous as it sounds, and the days when reporters flew business class are long gone, but waking up in Zurich one morning and Paris a few days later can be exhilarating.  I’ve always enjoyed seeing new places as the locals do, and working in new and different countries was a wonderful learning experience for me.  I’ve met terrific people who I otherwise probably wouldn’t have come across in my life in the United States, and it’s helped me grow as a person.

While some days I wish I had a job that required more creativity, other days I’m simply very glad that I can make such a lucrative living doing something that I know as well as the back of my hand.  When my personal life might be causing me stress, it’s a relief to be able to go to work and get my mind off my own problems and settle down to doing what I know best without having to think about it.  I feel very blessed to have the job I do.  I enjoy it, learn something new almost every day, make a very decent living at it, and can take time off whenever I need to.  I don’t know very many people who can honestly say they enjoy their work as much as I do, and for that I am very thankful.

11 thoughts on “Life as a freelance court reporter…

  1. Thanks for the interesting perspective on a slightly different career than we hear about on translation blogs. So wonderful that Ms.Kerr found a job that she likes for much the same reasons I am setting myself up for freelance translation. Learning new subjects often, setting your own hours… I’ll keep this career in mind if I ever burn out on my current one!

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  3. Wow, thanks for this information! I have been thinking of becoming a court reporter but I don’t know where to receive the proper court reporter training. Do you know where I should start?

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  7. I am a court reporter in Florida looking to accept jobs internationally. Exactly where would I find opportunities like that? I’ve been abroad many times, but never thought about mixing business with pleasure. Your article is very insightful. TIA

  8. I am currently a court reporting student, working on my 225s. I had a question about how you started out as a freelancer. Did you intern and then get hired somewhere?

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