The Impact of Court Reporter Shortages on the Legal System

The United States currently faces a severe shortage of traditional court reporters who transcribe testimony in-person. A decline in licensed court reporters that began a decade ago accelerated during the pandemic. Current estimates put the shortfall at around 9,000 fewer stenographers than courts and lawyers need. 

The dearth of court reporters has had a heavy impact on the legal system, although not entirely a negative one. On the one hand, it’s led to significant delays in civil litigation proceedings, especially live depositions, which tend to take a back seat in commanding the time of court reporters who also work for courts (where criminal matters crowd dockets and necessarily take priority). On the other hand, the shortage has also spurred innovations in remote deposition services and sparked an emerging transformation in how lawyers manage discovery. 

The Court Reporter Shortage by the Numbers

The current shortage of court reporters has been years in the making. In the early 2010s, the National Court Reporting Association (NCRA) began to warn of a looming shortfall of stenographers, driven by accelerating retirements among Baby Boomers, inadequate replacement rates among younger generations, and an ever-increasing demand for legal services as the U.S. population grew.  The NCRA predicted, and current industry surveys confirm, a decline in the pool of qualified court reporters from approximately 32,000 in 2013 to roughly 23,000 today.

Related: Why Traditional Court Reporting is Becoming More Expensive

The shortage isn’t necessarily uniform. Some geographic markets have felt the pinch more than others, according to reporting in Law360. But the overall trend is unmistakable. For the past decade, court reporter training programs have struggled with steadily declining enrollment, which the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated. Some schools have closed. Meanwhile, civil litigation has continued apace, fueling demand for transcription services that increasingly outstrips the dwindling supply of qualified stenographers willing to conduct in-person depositions.

Civil Discovery Hardest Hit

In 2013, the NCRA predicted civil discovery would experience significant growth in demand for court reporter services while the need for courtroom stenographers would remain relatively steady.  That’s what’s happened. And it has led to a shortage of court reporters that’s most acutely felt among civil litigators trying to schedule and take in-person depositions.  

The use of court reporters remains the norm in courtroom settings, where it can be critical to have an instantaneous and accurate record of what someone just said. Although some states have replaced stenographers with audio recording in the courtroom, they have seen mixed results, according to the Marshall Project.  

Voice recognition technology that can translate audio to text continues to improve, but its efficacy still wanes in courtrooms where the completeness of a recording depends on the speaker’s physical distance from a microphone and the quality of the court’s audio equipment. Most courts around the country remain reluctant to do away with stenographers, especially in criminal proceedings (where transcription errors can have constitutional implications and dire consequences). 

Consequently, the shortage of court reporters has taken its most significant toll in civil discovery, where demand has grown, but the pool of eligible stenographers has shrunk not just due to demographic trends but also because courtroom proceedings take priority. 

Civil litigators routinely experience difficulty planning in-person depositions around reporters’ busy schedules, which in turn creates problems in meeting case management deadlines. Turnaround times for transcripts and videography have also stretched weeks longer than normal. Because of the shortage, many civil litigants have had to spend more and wait longer to get justice or resolution in their cases. 

An Opportunity for Remote Deposition Technology to Grow

Still, the decline in court reporters available for in-person depositions has a silver lining. It has spurred rapid innovation — supercharged even further by the pandemic — in virtual court reporting services that make remote depositions as effective as in-person ones while saving lawyers time and money. 

Today’s industry-leading remote deposition platforms offer a suite of tools and services purpose-built to meet the needs of civil litigators, including: 

  • All-in-one software solutions that facilitate every task involved in planning, taking, and transcribing a deposition; 
  • Integrated scheduling of a qualified court reporter who can administer oaths in the deponent’s jurisdiction, record the deposition accurately, and deliver transcripts, videos and other work product on time and on budget; 
  • A user-friendly interface where the deposition “takes place” virtually, combining reliable audio and video streams with seamless exhibit-sharing functions; 
  • Live voice-to-text draft transcription of questions and answers that lawyers can monitor and review in real time; 
  • The ability to pre-upload and mark exhibits to the platform or to do so on the fly in the course of questioning; 
  • Virtual breakout rooms to facilitate private attorney-client communications;
  • High-quality audio and video streams suitable for packaging into courtroom-ready videography; 
  • Delivery of a draft transcript within 30 minutes of the conclusion of a deposition; 
  • On-time delivery of official transcripts in any required digital or hard copy format. 

Lawyers who use the latest remote deposition technology tend to find it as effective as taking in-person testimony and far more time- and cost-effective. 

Related: How Remote Court Reporting Software Can Help Lawyers Save Time and Money

Virtual depositions are easier to schedule than live ones these days because they draw on a nationwide pool of reporters and leverage the flexibility of remote working. They’re attractive not just for lawyers looking to save money and comply with a discovery schedule but also for witnesses and court reporters who appreciate the convenience of not traveling to a deposition site. 

Thanks to those attributes, remote depositions are poised to solve many of the challenges created by the current court reporter shortage. 

Advanced Technology Provides a Solution to the Shortage

As civil litigators and court reporters continue to gravitate toward virtual depositions solutions, the dominance of in-person depositions as the default mode of taking oral discovery will erode. Eventually, the market will find a new equilibrium in which remote depositions are as (if not more) common as examining a witness in a lawyer’s conference room. 

To be sure, in-person depositions administered by traditional court reporters will still have their place. But the ease of use, scheduling convenience, quick turnaround times, and cost savings of remote platforms will undoubtedly transform civil practice and, with it, the court reporting industry. 

Remote Legal is a leading provider of remote deposition tools and services. We offer a solution built to meet the needs of civil litigators and to overcome the scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the current court reporter shortage. To learn more about how we can ease the frustrations of scheduling and taking depositions in your practice, contact us today. 

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