A Perfect Fit
by Connie Church
One person knew exactly what she wanted to be after
graduating from high school - a freelance court reporter.
When I was in high school and considering which career direction my college studies would take, court reporting didn't enter my thoughts - frankly, because I'd never heard of it.
It wasn't until I entered a local scholarship pageant as a senior that I found out what it was all about. As part of the pageant, we did job shadowing with someone working in the field we were interested in. I knew that I was interested in law, and one of the ladies working on the pageant staff had a friend who was a freelance court reporter. She introduced me to her friend, Sandy, who let me tag along with her to a couple depositions.
Immediately I knew this was the career for me. The little machine intrigued me. I was a good typist and had studied shorthand so I understood the concept of writing by sound and syllable. I would be involved in the legal field. It was a perfect fit.
I enjoyed court reporting school and finished fairly quickly, thanks, I believe, in part to good finger dexterity from 11 years of piano lessons. I kept in touch with Sandy while attending school, and she took me on as an associate with her firm right after I graduated and passed my state test and RPR. I've been working with her ever since. I can hardly believe it's been 18 years now.
The Benefits of Freelancing
While I know that working as an official has certain advantages, including paid vacations and insurance benefits, I absolutely love freelancing and wouldn't do anything else. Here are some of the reasons why.
I love the flexible schedule. Even before I had children, I enjoyed being able to do many things during the workweek before and after depositions that an official, locked into an eight-hour day, would never have the luxury of doing. Depending on my transcript load and deposition schedule, I could sleep in, shop during the day when the stores are not so busy or take off somewhere with my husband if he happened to have a day or an afternoon off.
Now that we have two young children, I appreciate being able to work my schedule around things such as helping in their classrooms, going on school field trips and running them to music lessons and sporting events. They grow up so fast, and I'm thankful that I am there to participate in these things with them during the day. We also have lower childcare expenses than do people with a normal 9-to-5 job, as I'm often home working in my own office during the week so the kids can be home with me.
I am also able to schedule appointments during the day and work around them. My firm is great about working with all of the reporters when setting the schedule, taking into account our requests for morning or afternoon depositions or days off whenever possible.
Because of the flexibility of my schedule, I am able to volunteer many hours for our church as well as other organizations and causes that I feel are worthwhile and important, including working as a board member of the Washington Court Reporters Association. My husband calls me a perpetual volunteer.
I like working out of my home office. I can take a break and do a load of laundry or get dinner started and then get back to my transcripts. Maybe not everyone would consider that a benefit, but for me it makes managing our household easier, and I don't have to spend my weekends catching up on laundry and housework. On sunny days, I love to sit on the deck and work on my laptop. And the tax deductions for having a home office can make an appreciable difference come April 15th.
I also enjoy the variety that comes with freelancing. I go to work in a different place and with different people on a different case at a different time every day. My job is never boring or predictable. I would hate punching a clock and being "stuck" in the same office every day. And since I'm not working day-in, day-out with one group of people, I avoid the problems commonly associated with office politics.
I've traveled to many interesting places over the years, flown out of state, and even out of the country, for depositions. I often take a little extra time to explore an antique shop or two. My favorites are summer jobs in places near the beach. After the deposition, I change into shorts and go for a walk on the beach in the afternoon sun. If I have to drive somewhere out of town for a job, I appreciate the quiet time to think or listen to a book on tape.
You can also get away with a smaller wardrobe as a freelancer. After all, you're working with someone new today. That person doesn't know that you wore that same suit to yesterday's deposition. (I do try to remember, however, what I wore the last time I worked with a client; not that the client would necessarily remember, but it makes me feel better.)
Don't get me wrong, there are challenging days as a freelancer, just the same as working as a reporter in any other venue. At the end of some days, I am especially relieved that I will be working on a different case in a different place with different people the next day. And that's part of the beauty of freelancing. Each day brings something new and different.
Are You Interested?
If you're considering a career as a freelance reporter, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Be flexible. You need to be a flexible person. There's variance in everything when it comes to freelancing. Your schedule will be different every day, every week. Sometimes the schedule will change at the last minute. If you have young children, you need to have dependable last-minute childcare available. Last-minute jobs do come up. If someone has forgotten to hire a reporter, or another reporter in your firm is ill or has an unexpected expedite order, your firm will call and ask you to cover. It's not a good idea to say no too many times. The other reporters in your firm will be less willing to cover for you in one of your last-minute emergencies if you don't make an effort to help others out.
Learn to adapt. You will encounter many different circumstances and find yourself in all kinds of settings for depositions. Mostly you'll be in comfortable conference rooms. But you'll also report depositions in cramped doctors' offices, practically knee to knee with the attorneys and the witness; or offices at any kind of business you can think of, including heavy equipment operators, gravel pits, shipyards, etc.
I've also reported depositions at churches, prisons, schools, pool halls and hotels, and several times in a dying person's bedroom. Once I even set up my machine in a parking lot and reported a conference with a judge over an attorney's car speakerphone. You must be able to adapt to all of these reporting situations. Your attitude in handling jobs like these will make a difference in whether or not you are hired by those attorneys in the future.
Prepare for the roller coaster. Your workload will fluctuate greatly sometimes; "feast or famine" has certainly held true in my 18 years as a freelancer. My best advice to any reporter is to find a good scopist. Work with the scopist during one of those "famine" times. Come the next "feast," you'll be glad you did. You'll be able to take on more work when it's available with less stress and, as a result, make more money.
And speaking of money, you must keep in mind that your income will fluctuate, too. This will take a little getting used to at first. You'll have to work out a budget averaging your income over a year's time and save during your more lucrative income months for the sure-to-come lean months. Avoid the temptation to raise your lifestyle and monthly expenses up to the level of those high-income months.
Also, if you're an independent contractor as opposed to an employee of a firm, remember to take your taxes out off the top and put that money away in a savings account to pay on a quarterly basis.
Stay motivated. To be a successful freelance reporter, you need to be self-motivated. There's no clock to punch, which is a real plus in my book, but you must keep up with your transcript orders. And during those "feast" times, it's important that you carefully prioritize your work, meeting your own firm's deadlines as well as deadlines imposed upon you by upcoming arbitrations or trial dates, when the transcripts will be needed.
Focus on service. Due to circumstances sometimes beyond their control, attorneys will take depositions literally at the last minute and will need the transcripts on very short notice, oftentimes unbeknownst to you until after the deposition is over. Grace under pressure is called for in these situations, and you should make every effort to accommodate them.
Over the years, I have gone through periods of having what I call a bad attitude, where I began to view attorneys as demanding, always wanting something at the last minute and interrupting my orderly transcript schedule. Then I have to remind myself that they are really valued clients. Without them, I would not have work. I am in a service profession. They have a job to do, and they need my services and products to do their job. If I serve them well, I will keep them as clients.
Stay on top of technology. Just about impossible, I know, as it's always changing. But you will retain old clients and attract new ones if you can provide them with the latest tools to help make their jobs and the jobs of their support staff easier. They will appreciate your efforts, and you will be a better reporter, with more enthusiasm for your work, because you will be learning new things. It is always a boon to the ego to be specifically requested for a job because someone appreciates my work and skills as a Certified Realtime Reporter. It took effort on my part, including buying new software and changing the way I write to perfect my realtime, but I've been rewarded with many new clients because of it.
As far as computer equipment goes, definitely invest in a laptop computer. There is often a great deal of time spent waiting for late witnesses or during long breaks between depositions, and I always use that time to edit or proofread transcripts on my laptop. You never know when you'll have time to catch up on a little work. And that means less time spent in your office working on your own time. It's an invaluable tool, and I would never be without one. I would also recommend buying a rolling case. Depending on where you're working, many times you'll find that you have to park several blocks from where the deposition is being held or deep in a basement parking garage. Your arms will thank you for not having to carry those cases back and forth.
Network with other reporters. One great way to do that is to get involved in your state's court reporting association. You'll get to know other reporters from all around your state, which can be a good way to get referrals for attorneys traveling into your area for work. You'll also keep up with current legislation affecting the court reporting profession. In addition, attend seminars put on by your state association and NCRA to learn new things that will help you to be a better reporter.
A few months ago I signed up as a mentor for NCRA's Virtual Mentors Program. I have enjoyed "meeting" and getting to know the students I'm mentoring online. Ours is a wonderful profession with many opportunities, and it's so important that we support court reporting students. It will benefit us all. We need qualified new reporters to fill positions as they become available to meet the demands of the market, or the market will turn to alternative ways of making the record. When I'm imparting words of encouragement as a mentor, it always causes me to stop and think about how fortunate I really am to have chosen this profession.
I believe that freelance reporting is the best job there is. As reporters, we play an important role in our system of justice. The fact that it's interesting, challenging, lucrative and allows me to have a flexible schedule keeps me enjoying it, and I expect to continue to do so for many years to come. For me, it's a perfect fit.
Originally published in the July/August 2001 JCR
About the Author
Connie Church, CCR, RPR, CRR, lives in Montesano, Wash., with her husband, Chris, and two sons, Taylor and Kellen. Much of their free time is spent working on their own version of "This Old House."