October 2012 Keynote Speech to United States Court Reporters Association

SET YOURSELF ON FIRE

Keynote speech by Nancy Varallo to USCRA

Charleston, SC
October 5, 2012

Thank you, Shirley, and the USCRA board for your warm welcome. And to all of you in our audience today, I bring you collegial best wishes from our NCRA officers and board. We salute you and your fine organization, and wish you every success this weekend and in the future.

A favorite aphorism of mine says, “Success is not a result of spontaneous combustion; you must set yourself on fire.”

I’ve been honored to address many groups of my peers on a subject I’ve titled “The Professional in the Profession of Court Reporting.” The subject runs the gamut from dressing like a professional, the ethics of our unique role as officers of the court, to the ever-changing technology of transcript production. This morning I want to examine with you what it means to be a professional, indeed to have a profession, and what professionalism requires of each of us. I want to review a bit of our history, take stock of where we are today, and assess what’s likely for our future.

The profession of court reporting. That’s a phrase we use all the time, don’t we? But other fields of endeavor claim the rank of profession too. We have professional taxicab drivers, professional prizefighters, and human resource professionals. So are we truly a profession? The dictionary definition is “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.”

How interesting. A calling… requiring specialized knowledge.

Do you feel called to court reporting, as some are called to the ministry, perhaps? Well, I do. I started court reporting school in 1978 because I had that calling. I had studied music in college, taught piano to make ends meet, as I had gotten married right out of high school — we won’t go there! — so I was on my own. And guess what I found out? I didn’t like teaching piano.

Those students paraded into my music room each week, having failed to practice since last week’s lesson, wiped their runny noses on the backs of their little hands, and sat down at my piano, expecting to play their music perfectly — without having practiced at all. Really? Didn’t happen. Where was the effort? Where was the love of playing? Where was the respect for the composer whose music they tried to play? Why did they expect to be successful, having done nothing to ensure their success?

Let me share a sober truth with you: I’ve taught court reporting students for 25 years now, and except for the runny-nose part, I could just as well be describing some of my students. Worse, some working reporters I know fit that unflattering description.

“Success is not a result of spontaneous combustion; you must set yourself on fire.” Think about that for a moment.

Okay, so I don’t want to teach piano. Now what? I decided to switch keyboards, so I enrolled in court reporting school…and set myself on fire! Yup! No wing and a prayer. My finances had spontaneously combusted, so setting myself on fire was a fiscal imperative. And I got out of school in just over six months.

Six months? That’s on fire! How’d that happen? Well, court reporting school was a transformational experience, as we’d say today. The truth is simple. I fell in love! No, I’m not talking about my marriage. I fell in love with court reporting. I fell in love with the idea of it. I was on fire, bound and determined to succeed, and then I fell in love.

Those two attributes set me on the road to success in our profession. And there’s nothing like success to spur one on to greater achievement. After graduation I quickly earned my CSR, the RPR, then worked steadily to pass the Merit, eventually became a Diplomate Reporter, and finally added the CRR certificate.

In 2001 I became a Fellow of the Academy of Professional Reporters, and I want to recognize another Fellow in this room, my friend Brenda Fauber, who became a Fellow in August. NCRA describes Fellowship in the Academy of Professional Reporters as “a professional distinction conferred upon a person of outstanding and extraordinary qualifications and experience in the field of shorthand reporting.” That describes you, Brenda! Congratulations to you and all the other Fellows in this room on earning that signal distinction.

A “fapper” — that’s F-A-P-R — is a Fellow of the Academy of Professional Reporters. There’s that word again, professional, which Merriam-Webster defines as one “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession.”

What a spot-on definition for court reporters! How do we conform to technical standards? By becoming an RPR, one who has earned membership on the registry of professional reporters. How do we conform to ethical standards? By supporting our court reporting associations and subscribing to their code of ethics and professional conduct.

And the reporters in this audience have done just that. Of the 375 official reporter members of USCRA, 295 of you are Certified Realtime Reporters. Wow! That’s more than three quarters of you! Stellar! You have the approbation of all your peers in court reporting, because you are role models for all of us. Congratulations!

The challenge for organizations like USCRA or NCRA in these difficult times is to stay relevant, and thus attract and keep members. Membership in my professional organizations seems self-recommending to me, but some folks need convincing. I tell those skeptics why membership is important to me and urge them to join.

When we join USCRA or NCRA, we’ve become part of a community of interest – a family of court reporting professionals – where I can become knowledgeable about the issues of the day that directly affect my life and livelihood. I’ve joined a group who subscribe to shared principles that are codified in our Guidelines for Professional Practice and Code of Professional Ethics. There are advisory opinions I can consult, discussion forums where I can join my peers in hashing out the pros and cons of important and sometimes controversial issues that affect me.

My organizations offer skills tests that offer me the opportunity to become credentialed as a certified pro in my field — a badge of recognition that’s important to foster public confidence in our skills as well as to identify my status in my peer group. I can avail myself of continuing education, as indeed I must, in order to accumulate those all-important CEUs. There’s fellowship and networking and support from my peers. I’m not alone! I’m part of a greater family. In short, USCRA — or NCRA — is your second home.

You’d never fail to commit the time and effort and money necessary to make the mortgage payment on your place of residence. Your second home – your professional home – deserves the same level of commitment. It’s not an option. Or at least it shouldn’t be. That’s my sales pitch. And I’m passionate about it. For me, membership in my professional associations is essential, and I urge all of you to join me in promoting professional association membership to all reporters outside the fold.

I can tell you as someone who has worked with reporters as a firm owner, mentor, and coach, there’s a quality about reporters who are active joiners that is absent in those who aren’t. What is it? It’s got something to do with falling in love. It has something to do with recognizing the value of being a part of an association whose history encompasses more than a hundred years of accumulated knowledge, up-to-date information, and the brain trust of the thousands of reporters who have gone before us. How could one choose not to support her association? To me it feels like turning my back on my family. It’s not an option!

I found an interesting story on NCRA’s website that detailed some groundbreaking work done by farsighted predecessors of ours in NSRA, in an era when NSRA was a much smaller organization than the National Court Reporters Association is today. It explained that in the 1940s, judges could designate reporters to do the work of their courts, but the reporters were not paid salaries. Instead, they had to rely on the lawyers who tried cases for compensation. In other jurisdictions each lawyer brought in his own reporter, sometimes resulting in three or more reporters taking the same case!

At the 1941 NSRA convention, the members adopted a resolution to establish a system of Official Court Reporters. In 1946 Congress established such a system. NSRA’s Berry Horne reported that the system was created by Act of Congress which entrusted administration of the new law to the Judicial Conference. While the new law “was not everything that we desired,” Berry Horne said, “it was on the whole, rather satisfactory. Lacking our effort,” he concluded, “the system established would not have attracted topflight reporters to the federal courts.”

And to this day, topflight reporters are attracted to the federal court system. I’m gratified to know that I’m with a group of real professionals when I stand before you today.

Real professionals give back. It’s expected of us. Eleven years ago, after 22 years working in my dad’s court reporting business, I opened my own company. Its business model is unique. My clients are court reporters and agency owners, not lawyers. These reporters trust me with their clients. And they come to me for mentoring, wishing to upgrade their skills to RPR or CRR status. That too takes trust. I’m proud to have earned the trust and respect of my clients.

But how did that happen? Through service to our shared profession. I know it is because of my career-long involvement in my state and national associations, my championing of credentials and ethical practices, that has allowed me to build a successful business that is built on trust.

I fell in love with court reporting, I was on fire, and I’ve been successful. It’s not a coincidence.

My professional involvements have shaped who I am. I learned to say yes early on, to raise my hand and volunteer. And then I rolled up my sleeves and worked. What great opportunities I’ve had! I’ve been invited to plan and debate, to strategize and ponder our future with the brightest minds in our field. It has shaped my career and taken me to every part of this nation.

My best friends are people I met through my service, including my husband, whom I met when he served as a director during my tenure as our state association president. My fellow Massachusetts court reporters thought it was a coup when I got him to join the board. Ha! The real coup was getting him to marry me!

My husband is Ed Varallo, a name I suspect you may have heard before. He’s won a few speed contests in his life. His career started during high school, when he learned basic theory the summer after his junior year. During his senior year he practiced at home, studying his father’s shorthand notes. Ed’s dad was a court reporter, the kind of reporter with those clean, crisp notes that make us all jealous. Ed worked to write just like his father, studying those beautiful notes and practicing speed tapes at the dining room table. He reported his first deposition the day before his 18th birthday, in 1964.

I think Ed fell in love with court reporting. In fact, I know he did. He was on fire!

In 1974, ‘75, and ‘76 respectively, Ed won three national speed contests in a row, retiring the cup, as they say, on his 30th birthday in August of 1976. Ten years later, on his 40th birthday, he competed and won again. He repeated that feat, winning once again on his 50th birthday. And amazingly, in New York City at NCRA’s annual convention in 2006, on his 60th birthday, Ed competed once more.

What a year to be in attendance in the hotel ballroom as the contest results were announced. With the excitement building, and the room as electrified as any I’ve ever witnessed, he won the cup again. Our kids were there, screaming and jumping up and down in the back of the room. But so were the reporters in the room. Yes, the room was electric. Why? Because those in attendance were in love. Not with Ed – well, maybe some of the women were – but with court reporting!

Court reporting was important to them and it’s exciting to witness greatness, and here we were, watching one of the great writers of our time. It was mesmerizing! We were inspired! We were participants in our own profession’s history.

It’s all about hard work, isn’t it? Talk about setting yourself on fire!

In 1899 our national association was formed. Let me quote from NCRA’s website.
The first convention of the National Shorthand Reporters Association convened in Chicago. Kendrick Hill was elected its first president. In his opening remarks, he said, “We all know that a national stenographers’ association could be made a power for good, to elevate, ennoble and advance the profession, provided, when it is formed, its machinery is put into aggressive action.”
The new president told a story: “A prominent potter and congressman of Trenton, a personal friend of mine, was asked to write an essay of 300 words on the secret of success. He wrote the essay in three words: very hard work. By earnest effort, wisely exercised, we may secure that rightful recognition, reward for merit and justice to the profession which are our due.
Thank you, Kendrick Hill.

You and I have chosen a solemn field of endeavor, a respected profession, one with a history dating back 3500 years. I hope you’ve had a chance to visit the Gallery of Shorthand at the federal courthouse in Islip on Long Island. Dom Tursi, a fellow federal official, has invested his heart and soul in creating a museum dedicated to our profession. He is inspiring. He is a man in love with court reporting. Dom Tursi has set himself on fire! Go see him, enjoy the gallery, and be enriched by the experience.

Our history is honorable and noteworthy. What about our future?

We all know the value of life insurance. It’s there to provide security for our loved ones, just in case. It’s a bill we pay, much like the mortgage, because it provides security that is too important not to have. It’s expensive, but it’s part of our budget, and we pay for it because we recognize its value.

We live in tough economic times. Federal and state budgets, not to mention municipal budgets, are constrained. There just isn’t enough money to go around. That means the budget masters have to make tough choices. (Have you ever noticed people say “tough choices” when they mean a choice you aren’t going to like?) Every day stenographic reporters are being replaced by digital audio recording.

In my home state, the hundred or so court reporters who used to be employed in our state Superior Court are gone. There are less than half that number left. Now there are unattended, unmonitored recording systems in our courtrooms. Trial lawyers must pay transcriptionists to transcribe the recordings — with highly variable results.

Is there no longer a market for high-quality stenographic reporters? Well, that’s the good news. Yes, there is! But the emphasis is on the “high quality.” And today, that means realtime skills.

My agency regularly supplies freelance reporters to go into civil jury trials in Superior Court, hired by the litigators, to provide the official transcript — but more importantly, to provide what we call the SameDay Draft. The lawyers hire us because high-quality stenowriters can do what no tape recording system can: deliver a cleaned-up, good-quality draft transcript at the end of the court day, within a couple hours of the close of court. It’s a marvelous litigation support tool for trial lawyers. And in my marketplace, it has replaced “daily copy” as the service lawyers want from court reporters.

This is good news. Maybe we can’t stop the inevitable erosion of jobs in the court system, at least at the state level, but we have a place in the courtroom if — and only if — we can provide the value-added services that trial lawyers need today. And that’s realtime.

NCRA recently published a white paper entitled Making the Record: Solutions for Today and for the Future. The paper’s conclusions are based on primary research involving judges, court administrators, and court reporters in a study that was commissioned by NCRA and carried out by the National Judicial College. It reads in part:
“A still underutilized tool within many court systems is the realtime court reporter. Though realtime still too often is perceived to be a luxury by judges and court systems, its support among judges hardly could be stronger. Ninety-seven percent of the judges in the survey expressed support for implementation of realtime court reporting systems.”

That should make all the realtime-capable reporters in this room feel good. Your realtime skill is your job security.

One judge in the survey commented:
“I review digital records transcribed by court clerks, and they are at times horrible, mostly because of infirmities in the recording system.”

Well, no duh! That’s a statement of the obvious. But it points up an insidious threat to us. As long as a high-quality, reliable, verbatim transcription is the expected norm, we stenowriters have a bright future. But if “close enough” or “good enough” becomes acceptable, owing to the vagaries of digital recording, we’re in trouble.

So whatever you may think about the inevitability, or not, of the loss of official reporter jobs to recording systems, it’s imperative that we demonstrate to our respective marketplaces, freelance or courtroom, the value of the realtime services we have to offer. We are the state of the art in voice to text technology. We are the most reliable means of capturing the spoken word, and we can transcribe it instantaneously into text creating a draft transcript that can be e-mailed instantly to counsel wherever they are. At the moment, we have the field pretty much to ourselves — at least, those of us who can provide those services.

For all the certified realtime reporters in the room, please reach out this year to someone who isn’t. Spend time with them. Mentor them. Encourage them. Share your tips and techniques.

And to those reporters who aren’t yet CRRs, I offer this challenge to you: Set yourself on fire. Find a mentor. Practice. If you strive for perfection, you may find excellence along the way.
With the arrival of realtime came the draft transcript I mentioned, complete with birthing pains, as some reporters, ever mindful that they wanted to produce the best, most accurate transcript possible, resisted producing a less-than-perfect transcript. Some saw drafts as a threat. Well, that argument played out 15 years ago: Draft transcripts won.

As Ed Varallo says, “Once litigators realized they could get a cleaned-up, good-quality draft transcript only hours after the conclusion of a deposition or trial, they quickly saw the benefits to themselves and were willing to overlook the scattered errors. The trade-off was immediate access to a near-verbatim draft transcript. For them it was a no-brainer.”

Our world moves faster every day, and the “I need it now” mindset is pervasive in our legal marketplace. We serve our market by meeting that need, and that’s what draft transcripts do. Before the realtime era, say 1985, a topnotch court reporter was one who could produce a highly accurate transcript in a couple of weeks following the proceeding. She might have an RPR or RMR. She was a consummate pro.

But if your skill has not advanced beyond that today, and the provision of quick-turnaround draft transcripts is not a skill you have added, you’ve fallen behind. Ed underscores his point: “If my skills were the same today as they were in 1985, by which time I’d won three National Speed Contests, I would not be a topflight court reporter. I would be an also-ran.”

What satisfies lawyers today and drives the demand is a clean draft, not a dirty ASCII, and if you don’t perceive the demand in your courtroom, it’s because you haven’t promoted it. We get paid for drafts, and increased income is a fine incentive. But take the long view: What distinguishes stenographic court reporters from any other method of making the record is our ability to do quality realtime and provide the services that realtime capability enables. Today, that’s draft transcripts and realtime hookups.

I’d like to share with you a success story about a team of reporters who have set themselves on fire and who, because their hard-won credentials prepared them for it, were able to grab hold of an extraordinary opportunity.

About a year ago I was asked to assemble of team of reporters for the military trials of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The detainees are the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Abd Rahim Al-Nashiri, accused in the bombing of the USS COLE in a Yemeni harbor.

President Obama has mandated transparency for these hearings so that the public can stay informed. Transcripts of each day’s hearings are to be posted that evening on a website of the Office of Military Commissions, as an aid to the press and the public. To meet that mandate, the government turned to stenographic reporters.

I was asked to build a team of certified realtime reporters who would first have to pass a 45-minute realtime test, and would not be permitted to use audio backup at Gitmo. These reporters would have to submit to detailed background checks and receive top secret clearances. They would be expected to travel for weeks at a time, perhaps months, to Gitmo. And in the process of putting all that together, I earned the handle Fearless Leader.

The call to action resulted our fielding an elite team of thirteen – ten men, three women. We are not the “official reporter” in the courtroom. Rather, we work in another building by means of an audio and video feed, on 40-second delay, from the courtroom. Those 40 seconds give government censors time to screen out testimony involving classified information before it makes its way into the public record that we are transcribing.

Ed Varallo, Bill Weber, and Mike Miller are just a few of the superstars on the team. Bill says, “When I was a young reporter, I read about Vivien Spitz and her work reporting the Nuremberg trials. I never thought I’d be able to work on something so historically significant. What I’m doing at Gitmo may not rise to that level, but it is a very important part of our history. I am excited by the work and so grateful to have been chosen to be part of this incredible team.”

Bill may be grateful to have been chosen, but he earned his way on the team. By working hard, by earning his realtime credentials, by setting himself on fire, he was ready to walk through the door when it opened.

On test day, as each of the reporters gathered after taking the test, all men that day, there was a lot of locker room bravado about the experience of taking a make-or-break 45-minute realtime test. Not to be outdone, when Ed was asked how it had gone, he replied: “Piece of cake. I finished in 42 minutes.”

Mike Miller — you all know him as Depoman – from Texas — speaks to the team spirit and respect shown to our reporters on base: “Once we were informed that we are here at the behest of the Obama administration, we realized that we could ask someone to throw a midget dressed like Elvis into a blender, and they’d get right on it. Not that we’re taking advantage of it, but it’s a pleasant change from You can’t charge mileage to drive to Beaumont.”

The highest echelons of Government have taken note of our team’s outstanding performance. President Obama was briefed on their work. Monique, our Defense Department liaison at Gitmo, received an award recognizing her work with the stenographers, as we’re called. A military prosecutor, used to long waits for transcripts made from digital recordings, watched one of our reporters write. The realtime text danced across the screen, and long Arabic names tran’d instantly. He exclaimed, “It’s wizardry! The names are coming up on the screen before the speaker’s even finished saying them.”

Brigadier General Mark S. Martins, a prosecutor, has been impressed. He sent each reporter a handwritten note of appreciation, FedEx’d to their home. Here’s what he wrote to one member of our team: “Thank you for your excellent work on the military commission transcript project. These transcripts – so challenging to produce, and so rapidly – are making a huge difference. Public confidence is greatly increasing now that those transcripts are widely available the same day as a hearing. All the best, Mark Martins.” Not General Martins. Mark Martins.

At our national convention this year, our keynote speaker had a great line: “What is it about being our age? We go to bed healthy and wake up injured.” Well, the Gitmo reporters share those sentiments. While on a recent trip, Bill Weber sent me a teasing e-mail saying, “You’ll have to send in the young reporters. Oh, wait, we don’t have any.” Although the note was funny, it struck a chord of truth. We can’t ignore our aging demographics and the shortage of graduates entering our profession.

NCRA has appointed a task force charged with redefining court reporter education. Its members are school owners, administrators, instructors, working reporters, board members, and NCRA staff. Is Meagan Hague here today? Hi, Meagan. Thank you for serving on our task force.

Our board is placing the highest priority on the work of this task force, and our expectations are correspondingly high. We believe that twenty years from now, people will look back on this moment and judge NCRA on how we addressed this issue. The question the task force will ponder:
If we pretended that here, in 2012, there were no court reporting schools in existence anywhere in North America, and this task force was asked to create a structure and a delivery system that would provide the best opportunity to recruit and graduate as many students as possible over the next 10 years, what would that look like?

We don’t have a preconceived notion of what the answer should be, except to acknowledge we need a game changer with regard to court reporter education. It is the job of the task force to outline a new paradigm of court reporter education, and then tell us how to make it happen.

Allow me to share with you some of the what-if scenarios discussed at the board table.

• What if a universal platform were established for use by any court reporting school to deliver education through the internet?

• What if five of the best instructors in the business become available to teach and deliver content at every court reporting school in the country?

• What if court reporting theory could be delivered online, at minimal cost, to every high school and community college in the country?

• What if, each year, a cohort of hundreds or thousands of high school graduates go directly into court reporting programs, with basic theory effectively behind them?

• What if NCRA were to serve as the broker of such an Internet-based delivery system and then partnered with schools to deliver such programming to their students?

So we have waved our Magic Wand and asked the big “what if” questions. Now it’s time for our task force to do its work. I, for one, am eager to get started.

There are challenges aplenty to our profession — people saying they can do our jobs without us, just plug in a tape recorder and let ‘er rip — and just plain old competition from companies and individuals who say they can do it cheaper and save the courts bundles of money.

As our psyches get pummeled and our sense of worth is daily assaulted, it’s reassuring to step back and remember who we are. We court reporters do great stuff! We snatch spoken words out of the air and whelm them down onto paper in a complex process, at white hot speed. The words fly, our brains process the incoming avalanche of words, our fingers write, and our software translates and — voilà! — the words appear on the screen in front of us, and perhaps on screens in front of the judge and attorneys, or a screen in front of an expert witness a thousand miles away, all in a fraction of a second. That’s awesome!

But while we are the state of the art in voice-to-text technology, we are much more than that. We are guardians of the record, protecting the rights of the accused, and oftentimes providing services otherwise unavailable, such as CART and captioning. Guardians, protectors, and providers — serious stuff, folks. No digital audio recording system can live up to that description. Why? Because those attributes describe the traits of human beings who know their solemn responsibilities and live up to them.

Do the budget masters understand that they are abrogating those responsibilities when they remove us from the courtroom and plug in a tape recorder? It is the judiciary’s unique responsibility to protect our citizens’ rights in our courts of law. Thomas Jefferson must have had us in mind when he said. “All the tranquility, the happiness and security of mankind rest on justice, on the obligation to respect the rights of others.” Justice! What an ennobling ideal ! You and I understand the part we play in the grand scheme of justice in our courts.

Our system of justice, as imperfect as it is, is nonetheless a beacon to peoples of the world who despair of finding justice within their own legal systems.

We are the ultimate insiders, working within the system to do our part to make the system work. We may be guardians of the record, but do people know, or care, who we are? We are CART providers too, and captioners. Does anybody care? Yes, they do. They may not know your name, but they know the quality of your work. They can see it in your transcripts, or on your realtime screen in the courtroom; or on a screen in the classroom where a CART provider is working; or as they watch the captions dance across a TV screen.

The work we do is important. People are watching every word of it! And they are judging us. They will know you by the mark you leave, by your brand, by your professionalism. Your brand starts with your credentials. Please don’t slight them. It’s important for you to have your RPR, Registered Professional Reporter. Don’t stop there. There’s the CRR, Certified Realtime Reporter, the RMR.

You want your doctor to have M.D. after his name; you want your lawyer to have Esquire after his name. And the bench, the bar, and the public we serve want to know we have earned the credentials that identify us as professionals — experts — in our field. If you are not yet a Certified Realtime Reporter, work to become one. Realtime competence is what distinguishes us from the also-rans.

Casey Jones wrote these words for the Kansas Shorthand Reporters Association in 1964: “I protect the truthful witness, and I am a nemesis of the perjurer. I am a party to the administration of justice under the law and the Court I serve. I discharge my duties with devotion and honor. Perhaps I haven’t made history, but I have preserved it through the ages for all mankind. I AM THE REPORTER.”

I’ve talked about what makes ours a true profession and described the hallmarks of a true professional. What about professionalism? What nuance is there to that word? Professionalism is “the conduct, aims or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.”

Another revealing triptych: conduct, aims, or qualities. Conduct yourself at all times with self-respect and respect for the important work you do. Aim for the highest accomplishment of which you are capable, be it RPR, CRR, RMR, speed contest qualifier. And always, quality. Make quality the hallmark of who you are and excellence your standard operating procedure. My husband likes to quote Aristotle on this subject. That timeless sage said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

So reach high, let imagination invigorate your plans, and work diligently to succeed. Nothing less, really, is good enough. Dedicate yourself to being the best professional you can be. Set yourself on fire!

Today I wanted to celebrate with you our great profession and the professionals who make it great. Thank you for listening.