In a lower level conference room of the Hilton Chicago on Wednesday morning, 40 court reporters gathered with their 22-key stenotype machines, waiting for their names to be drawn to see who could pick the next seat.
Some wanted spots in the back row while others were quick to take a spot next to the speaker.
The certified court reporters were prepping for the 77th annual National Speed Competition as a part of the National Court Reporters Association’s annual conference, which began Wednesday morning and runs through Sunday.
Each year, a reporter leaves the conference with bragging rights as the speediest and most accurate court reporter in the competition.
Those who aren’t familiar with court reporting might be quick to dismiss it as a job that simply requires quick typing skills; however, ask any of the 1,100 court reporters who are attending the convention this weekend and you’re likely to learn otherwise.
In addition to an average of 2½ years of schooling and continuing education to keep up with licensing requirements, stenographers are the recordkeepers of everything from legal depositions and court proceedings to closed-captioning that hearing-impaired individuals rely on for audio translation.
At Wednesday’s contest, they were tasked with stenotyping up to 280 words per minute by typing a transcript read aloud by a quick-tongued speaker. The contestants used their customized keyboard setups, which have no key markings, to jot down their individualized version of shorthand that they later had a limited time to transcribe. The winner of the most accurate transcript will be recognized later during the convention.
And it won’t be a relaxed grading process. So much as leaving the period out after a “Q” used to mark the start of a question could hurt a reporter’s grade.
While the competition puts the banner skills of a good court reporter — speed and accuracy — to the test, the competition also allowed the stenographers to get a glimpse at how some of their counterparts work.
Take for example court reporters and brothers Clay Frazier, 29, and Chase, 22.
The two traveled from Murrieta, Calif., along with their mom, Tami, who is also a court reporter, to attend the conference.
Clay Frazier sat out of this year’s competition after having competed in previous contests and at an international court reporters’ competition in Budapest, Hungary. Just after the competitors finished, he told his mom as she headed out to start on her transcription that she was “trailing,” or falling behind as she stenotyped.
She was quick to correct him, though, telling him she was actually taking notes on the side. Together, they conferred over how tough this year’s competition was with the material containing many multisyllabic words.
Clay Frazier wasn’t the only one watching fingers closely as the 45-minute long competition, consisting of various speaking segments, took place. Some of the attendees who sat out of the competition watched intently, while others listened with their eyes closed and “air stenoed” with their hands.
After a five-minute segment of nonstop dictation at anywhere from 220 to 280 words per minute, sighs and sounds of seats adjusting and stretching came from the crowd of competitors. One man blew on his fingers between rounds while others complained about the cool air conditioning, which can affect dexterity.
The unique quirks the reporters use to get the job done is a reflection on the individualized process by which stenographers work, according to certified court reporter Mike Bouley from Tucson, Ariz.
“This is part science and part art. The machine is always the same, but how you use the machine to capture language and reproduce it, there’s some artistry involved in that,” he said.
“It’s very interesting and fascinating. Everybody’s got a machine with the same keyboard, but you can use it however you want to. You can program this machine to use any combination of keys you want to mean any piece of language you want,” he said.
Another competitor remarked that the Bouley name is “legendary” among Arizona court reporters. Bouley noted that might be due to sheer volume alone. His late father, Jim Bouley, was a longtime court reporter who was known as “the fastest fingers in the West.” Five of Jim Bouley’s eight children went on to become court reporters.
Mike Bouley, who has been in the business 31 years, said it’s often misunderstood that court reporting is a dying profession. According to the NCRA, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the field to grow by 14 percent through 2020.
Another thing some people don’t understand about the profession is the fact that it’s mentally taxing and can require the professionals sport a game face in frequent situations where they must type emotional or unnerving testimonies.
“It’s much like a doctor. You have to maintain your professionalism and you have to be compassionate, but you also have to have a bit of a shell,” Bouley said. “You wouldn’t be human if there weren’t days when it got past your shell a little bit, but if you’re going to do it again tomorrow and on a continued basis, you’re have to work hard to let that go.”
“People say, ‘do your fingers get tired?’ It’s your brain that gets tired. It’s the focus and concentration. The processing involved is tremendous,” he said.
Probably one of the most experienced court reporters in the room Wednesday, 92-year-old William Cohen of New York City, observed the competitors as he sat in the back row. Cohen, a World War II veteran, went on to work as a court reporter for 51 years after the war before retiring in 2000. Since then, he’s done freelance work.
His identical twin brother, Arnold Cohen, is also a retired court reporter.
William Cohen brought his computer along to Chicago this week, where he plans to finish some transcribing work from his hotel room of an American Legion convention he covered in New York.
Cohen won the National Speed Competition in 1956, 1957 and 1958. Although he didn’t join Wednesday’s competition to defend his earlier titles, he said he made the trip for the convention simply because he’s interested in what’s new in the business.
“I had been in the competition in the 1950s, and I’m curious as to how it’s doing,” he said. “People speak as rapidly as they always have. That’s something that won’t change.”