Court reporters have the job of writing down everything anyone says in a legal proceeding while on the record. How a court reporter is able to write down anything anyone says is by writing everything phonetically. Therefore, it is possible for a court reporter to take down the words of an Australian scientist discussing the sequencing of the human genome.
At moments the job can be impossible. Why? Because two or more people speak simultaneously, people mumble, and people have heavy accents or speak at 350+ words per minute.
How does a court reporter deal with the situation when it is impossible to take down the record? What is a polite way to tell someone to slow down or stop mumbling? There is no easy answer. For the new court reporter, when and how is especially tough.
The following are my suggestions:
- Don’t interrupt to get spellings. Make a note in the record to check a spelling. I have a stroke that writes (spelling?) . Sometimes when I am writing realtime, an attorney will see (spelling?) and write down the correct spelling for me or ask the witness. It irritates attorneys to have constant interruptions for spellings, particularly if the case has been going on for a while, and the reporters are not sharing word lists.
- Don’t interrupt if you hear an unusual phrase. Write it out phonetically and use the same (spelling?) brief. Ask at a break what the phrase is.
- When two or more people are talking at the same time, politely say something like, “Please speak one at a time for the record.”
- If a witness is constantly starting the answer while the question is still being asked, and it happens three or four times in a row, I will say, “Excuse me. The witness needs to let the question finish before answering.” If possible, I will wait until the first break and tell the witness’ attorney.
- If the questioning attorney constantly says, “Okay,” during an answer, or “Right,” and the witness is speaking fast, I will just write the answer and not all of the “okays.” Most of the time the interruptions are almost under the attorney’s breath.
- If the testimony is too fast, look at your words per minute meter on your CAT software. Tell the people, “You are speaking at 325 words per minute” (or whatever it is). “I need you to please slow down.”
- Mumbling. If you are at a video deposition, ask the videographer for a feed from the microphones, and turn up the volume. It makes an unbelievable difference in dealing with a mumbler. Otherwise, I suggest you physically ask counsel to stop, and start scooching your chair towards the witness with your machine. Get close. Physically move to show everyone you are having trouble hearing/understanding the witness. The action will hopefully make the witness more conscious of the fact you are writing down their words.
- If the witness has a heavy accent, and you happen to have an extra netbook or realtime device, put a screen in front of the witness (with the attorneys’ permission) to ensure you are writing what they are saying. Otherwise, you are forced to constantly interrupt.
One thing I know for sure: If you are working hard and really focusing on getting the record, everyone in the room will respect how difficult your job is – particularly, if it is fast, furious, and really intense. If you need to interrupt or slow people down, do it. Be polite. Try not to be angry (or show that you are angry.) Court reporters have a really hard job some days. That is just the way it is. Luckily, most days are great.