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The Looming Court Reporter Crisis is a Perfect Storm

David Cowen

By David Cowen

A storm looms on the horizon that could impact litigation attorneys and the broader legal industry. The court reporter shortage is here and already leading to delays in case resolution. Even if you have only noticed a drizzle of scheduling issues and slower transcript turnaround time, the gale force winds are sure to arrive in the near future. The red flags are being raised by the National Court Reporter Association (NCRA). It’s industry outlook report states that this year there will be 5,500 court reporter job vacancies in the United States. The storm is real and approaching fast.

Majority Nearing Retirement

The average age of a court reporter is 51 years old and the largest percent of the reporter population is over the age of 46 and likely to retire in the next 20 years. The replacement rate of new reporters is low and decreasing every year, as students are being driven toward four-year colleges and view stenographic typing as a skill that will soon be automated by technology. The inevitable storm gets further complicated by increasing demand for reporters driven by ever increasing litigation by corporations and insurance companies. Additionally, alternative opportunities such as broadcast captioning that utilize stenographic recording techniques further pressurize the demand funnel. With each compounding issue we begin to see a forecast for the perfect storm of a crisis that is just off the coast.

The reason for the NCRA’s reporter shortage becomes clearer when you take a closer look at the industry. As reported by the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, learning a stenotype machine can take years of study, with the required software costing up to $10,000. Accredited schools are closing across the country, and only 5-10 percent of the students graduate. The high barrier to entry and low student success account for much of the low replacement rate, and courts are feeling the pinch. Illinois reports that the average age of a reporter is over 50 with 75 percent of their staff eligible to retire in 15 years.

Slowing Down Justice

While courts and law firms are beginning to feel an impact, the brunt of the issue is likely to accelerate within the next five to 10 years as the rate of court reporter retiring increases. The negative effects will be slower case resolution, slow transcript production due to unmanageable workloads, and increased prices or even bidding wars for available reporters. While reporter fees are often pass-through costs, these delays and price hikes could leave a sour taste in your clients’ mouth. As resources become scarce, larger firms would be able to secure priority spots with reporters that give them a competitive advantage over smaller firms.

So, what can be done? One of the most sacred duties of a court reporter is to accurately and objectively capture and record witness testimony as close to 100 percent accurate for the official record. This duty cannot be understated for the importance to our justice system to operate effectively. Advancements in technology are going to be necessary to fill the gap and push the industry forward. Court systems across the country are already beginning to implement video testimony technology to capture the record. The trend toward digital is clear and accelerates the belief that stenographic typing is a skill that will be automated in the near future, with students taking notice.

High-Tech Alternatives

Nearly every one of us now has access to high quality cameras, microphones, and a supercomputer located on your desk and in your pocket. Alternatives to the traditional court reporter model, such as the testimony platform created by the company vTestify, are adapting to today’s technological realities and reframing the job for the way the next generation of legal transcriptionists want to work. The solution is likely not a stenography machine. Even more compelling is how swiftly speech-to-text technology advancements accelerate every year. With fully automated and accurate machine transcription likely still a few years, or perhaps decades away, a human touch will be required for the foreseeable future. However, tools available today to leverage automated transcription can reduce production time by half if implemented properly.

By making a change and embracing new technologies, such as vTestify, not only will you be prepared for the impending crisis, you will save 50 percent, reduce your reliance on court reporters and be more efficient in the process. As the world of testimony evolves, be sure to set you and your firm on a path to smoothly sail through the waters of change.


David Cowen is the president and managing director of the Cowen Group, a staffing and recruiting firm focusing exclusively on the e-discovery, litigation support, privacy, security, and information governance sectors. His firm also produces the summit on legal innovation and disruption in various cities across the United States. In addition, David is an adviser to vTestify.