Over the last year I have had several people come to me seeking employment as a court reporter. When I ask, “What are your qualifications,” I have been met with the answer, “I have a diploma in court reporting.” Having probed a little further, I was advised that the diploma in court reporting was at 160 words per minute. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news…but a diploma in 160 wpm is not a recognized certification of a court reporter in any jurisdiction that I am aware of. So I write this blog as a “buyer beware” warning – that when considering studying for a career in court reporting, what you think you may be qualified to do, and the price you pay to achieve it, may not be what you thought you were bargaining for.

I received my certification from the Chartered Shorthand Reporters’ Association back in the early eighties. At that time (and today), the exam administered was in four parts and you needed to pass all legs in order to be certified: a 5 minute jury charge at 160 wpm; a 5 minute Q&A at 180 wpm; a 5 minute Q&A at 200 wpm; and a written knowledge test. The speed tests required 97% accuracy or better. Let me be clear: in today’s fast-paced world, time is the one commodity no one can purchase so everyone tries to cram as much in as possible when conducting an examination or trial. Writing shorthand at 200 wpm is a bare minimum of what one requires in order to create a record of excellent quality. Even at this rate one would use an audio backup for those spots that were missed (and there will be spots).

The National Court Reporters’ Association of the USA only accredits a course that holds 225 wpm with 97% accuracy as the bare minimum standard. The NCRA does not accredit any course that has a threshold less than 225 wpm. At this speed, one is in a good position to begin a career as a court reporter who can provide an excellent record (and you’ll still need an audio backup for those few people who like to talk at 275+ wpm).

Becoming a skilled shorthand reporter is not an easy task. You may be the most determined, diligent student, but that is not a guarantee that you will indeed get to the required speeds the job requires. In fact, some statistics show that a mere 10% of those who begin a court reporting course will actually succeed and move on to become a qualified court reporter. Of a class of 30 students, I was the only one who actually became a court reporter.

For those of you who possess 160 wpm, you might be able to get work transcribing audio recordings, for example, where you can replay and replay the audio so you can get every word. In court or in hearings, we don’t have that luxury. Once said, it is gone. It is our job as court reporters to capture every word. In the world of captioning and CART, not only must you be able to write at high rates of speed, you must also be able to write extremely accurately. The person who is hard of hearing or deaf is relying on you to be their ears – getting only three-quarters of something is not enough. In fact, you are doing a disservice to that hard of hearing or deaf person by providing substandard service.

Before embarking on a court reporting course, think about this. If your goal is to acquire a diploma at 160 wpm, or if it’s your fallback position if you can’t reach 225 wpm, save yourself the money and go out and train on a digital audio recording system. It will take far less time, there will be little to no monetary investment by you as a student, and you will probably be able to produce just as good a record in that way as you would by being able to write 160 wpm. I’m sorry to say, but 160 wpm just doesn’t cut it and does not put you in any better position to produce an excellent record than it does someone trained in today’s digital systems. Our courts have now moved to this model almost completely, so you might have a good chance to be trained and be working within a very short period of time.

This should not be read as a condemnation of my method of court reporting – which is, of course, via shorthand. I believe qualified, skilled shorthand reporters create an excellent record and many of us do so in realtime – something no digital recording device can compete with. However, this is true only of those shorthand reporters who have worked very hard to attain the appropriate speeds suitable for verbatim court reporting work.

Accreditation by the CSRAO or the NCRA comes in the form of successfully completing the examinations of either association– both in words per minute with a certain percentage accuracy, and a written test – and in some cases other conditions. A school cannot grant an accreditation in the form of a CSR (Certified Shorthand Reporter) or an RPR (Registered Professional Reporter).

To those of you who have attained your 160 wpm – keep going if you want a career in court reporting. You’ve done well to get to 160, but there’s more work to do. There are many online courses with excellent reputations, such as Realtime Coach, where you can keep practising and honing your skill so that you can write the CSR exam or the RPR exam. Get accredited by an independent, non-partisan body (this is not your school): by doing so, you tell the world that you really do possess the skills you claim to have. Find a mentor who can help you through the tough spots, preferably one that is already a working reporter or CART/captioner with a few years of experience.

There are no shortcuts in shorthand reporting. The payoff can be incredible, but you need to get here (at 225 wpm) in order to get there (a wonderful, interesting, well paying career). It’s very simple, yet very difficult to achieve…but aren’t the most rewarding things we attain sometimes the most challenging to reach?

And last but not least, don’t believe all those subway ads you see that talk about the six figure salary…there are a handful of very talented, hard working, self-sacrificing people in that category, but the vast majority do not dwell in that space.