Stenographer Makes Case for Rewards of Court Jobs

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01Jul2010

Stenographer Makes Case for Rewards of Court Jobs

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By Heidi Morrison, The Statesman, Austin, TX

With the recent economic turmoil affecting so many jobs, the search for high-demand careers has reached a new intensity. According to two local professionals, recording legal proceedings is an occupation with a great deal of potential.

Donna Wright is a freelance court reporter in Austin, specializing in high-profile cases for court reporting firms in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, New York, Atlanta and California.

Wright, 50, has been a court reporter for about 30 years and said the recession has not affected her.

“Court reporting is a profession that’s in demand because it’s hard to find good court reporters nowadays,” she said.

To keep a record of important courtroom information, Wright uses the stenograph machine or stenotype. It has been around for decades and today it is primarily used for court reporting where the court reporter types every word uttered in a legal proceeding. Other occupations requiring stenography skills include real-time broadcast captioning and communication access realtime translation (CART). This entails a CART provider attending class with a student who is hearing-impaired and taking down everything said in the lecture for the student to read.

The median salary of a court reporter is nearly $50,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wright, who originally wanted to be a hairdresser, said she discovered the field through her father, who was a justice of the peace in the Niagara Falls area.

She graduated from Alfred State College in upstate New York in 1979 with an associate’s degree in court reporting and got a job soon after with the Workers’ Compensation Board in New York.

Three years later she moved to Texas, where she did jury reporting and depositions. Soon she met a federal judge and applied to be his reporter.

Wright said 78 court reporters applied for this position, and she was the one to get it.

“I was the first woman in the Western District of Texas, one of the youngest in the United States to ever get this job,” she said.

Brent Kirby is a legal video specialist, another court-related profession, and he works with Wright on many depositions.

His job is to produce legal video and provide all necessary recording equipment. Depositions are videotaped about 70 percent of the time in order to show the client how witnesses might present themselves in the courtroom, Wright said.

Kirby said he loves the industry because it is fun and there’s something different every day.

“It’s like going to college briefly every day,” he said. “We have a vast knowledge of pretty much everything that’s out there. We’re good at a cocktail party for about five minutes on any subject because we know about five minutes worth of everything.”

Kirby said Wright is one of the best in the Austin community.

“They trust her and they believe in her,” he said. “There are a few that rise to the top, and she has definitely achieved that.”

To become a court reporter, most states require a test in order to obtain a license. To pass the test, a court reporter must record 225 words per minute, according to the National Court Reporters Association Web site.

This is done by pushing three or four buttons at once, which generates several words at a time. For instance, typing “ladies and gentlemen” would require pushing the letters L, A and G at the same time. Court reporters learn the language and codes of the stenograph machine at school. The more they practice speed-building, the better they become.

“It’s very lucrative,” Wright said. “When you get the experience, the sky’s the limit. Some reporters make up to a couple hundred thousand or more.”

The hardest part of the job, Wright and Kirby concur, is having to hear some of the things said in a courtroom.

“The toughest part is keeping a straight face,” Kirby said. “We hear stuff that most people shouldn’t hear.”

But overall, they both have a passion for the profession.

Kirby said it takes perseverance, dedication and self-discipline, but it’s an industry he enjoys.

“I think it’s a great profession and I love it,” Wright said. “You never know what you’re walking into. It’s exciting.”

This article was originally printed in The Statesman, Austin, TX in April 2010.

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