A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
"When I went to court reporting school, there were 90 of us who entered and eight who graduated. The standards are really high—anything under 97 percent is an F—and you want them to be high, because we're making a verbatim record. If it was your lawsuit or your death penalty case, you'd like the guy taking the notes to get it perfect. An appeal can live or die on the correct record. So we really can't make mistakes.
"The closed captioning on your TV—that's a court reporter. I know, right? That's us back there. And then we do federal and state court hearings and trials, private depositions, board meetings, public speeches. A lot of people don't realize it's court reporters who are used to make the Congressional Record.
"When you're typing, every time you type a stroke, you use an individual finger. But when you're typing on a steno machine—actually, we call it 'writing'—you press keys simultaneously to make words and phrases. Like playing music. It's a machine with 24 keys: four vowels, 18 consonants, and a number bar. And then I have a Bluetooth connection to my computer, and it instantly translates my steno into English. I write 240 words a minute.
"I worked on tobacco litigation; I worked on the Bridgestone/Firestone case when the tires were exploding. You walk into a room with an attorney like Dan Webb or take the deposition of former Governor Thompson—it's pretty weighty stuff. I worked on a huge murder case about 15 years ago. A woman was bludgeoned to death on the North Shore. Those are the cases that make your hands shake.
"If you say it, it's on the record. If someone says, 'Don't put that in there,' then we write those words: 'Don't put that in there.' Even when a judge says 'Strike that,' all the words appear, but then the words 'Strike that' appear. But good reporters know that if they start talking about the Cubs game, that doesn't belong in there.
"It's the only job I know of where you have at least four hours of homework every night of the week, 'cause we work at the pleasure of the legal system. I can't tell you how many times we'll have a 400-page day, and attorneys will say, 'I want that in the morning,' and you're thinking, 'Okay, a couple pots of coffee, cancel dinner with friends . . .' They'll go, 'Don't you just push a button?' Yes, if you don't want me to proofread it, spell-check it, put some punctuation in that you might enjoy.
"In court, we're like human lie detectors. We're sitting there observing body language, the pace of your speech. Sometimes it's the hesitations, sometimes it's the eye contact. If you want to know if someone's a liar, ask a court reporter.
"I wasn't even 21 when I got licensed as a court reporter. You should be old enough to drink to do this job. Court reporters are always walking into rooms in which everyone's at war, and you have to not let that get all over you. I do a lot of yoga. Yoga and long-distance cycling. And the elliptical."