What Managers Look For When Hiring Reporters
It took money. It took time. It took dedication. It took your blood, your toil, your tears, your sweat. And now here you stand, diploma or CSR certificate in hand, ready, at long last, to begin working as a court reporter. But what if you barely passed your 225s — and then only after devout entreaties to your deity of choice?
Or maybe you’ve been reporting a few years but feel it’s time to make a change and move from the freelance arena to the courtroom or from one freelance firm to another. What if you’re not a Registered Diplomate Reporter? What if you don’t write stellar realtime? Heck, what if you don’t write realtime at all?
I asked official and freelance reporting managers from the United States and Canada what they look for when hiring reporters. Is it Mach 1 writing speed? Is it steno notes clean enough to eat off? Is it four score and seven years of experience? Their answers may surprise you.
“The very first thing that comes to mind when looking for a reporter is the work ethic,” according to Phyllis Clarke DeFonzo, RPR, of Freehold, N.J. “I want the commitment to work — and willingly. There are a handful of reporters I could think of who are cooperative in every way and then some. That is what I look for.” This sentiment is echoed by Forrest Brown, RDR, of Brown Reporting Inc. in Atlanta: “What I look for is someone who is hungry and wants to work, someone who doesn’t complain about their job assignment and who is willing to work late, if necessary.”
Lana M. Fruke, RPR, CMRS, CPE, manages a large pool of officials in San Diego. In her opinion, “Of course, good reporting, transcription and proofreading skills are obvious prerequisites. As far as personality traits, I am looking for reporters who can withstand a lot of stress such as appeal deadlines coming all at the same time; are professional, conscientious and ethical; will walk the extra mile when called upon — team players; and have good business sense and communication skills.”
Positive Mental Attitude
A positive attitude seems to go hand in hand with a strong work ethic. “We look for enthusiasm and team spirit,” says Donna Kanabay Harvey, RMR, CRR, whose family has owned Kanabay Court Reporters in St. Petersburg, Fla., for more than 30 years. Alfred A. Betz, RMR, of Al Betz & Associates Inc., Westminster, Md., puts it another way: “I look for experience and personality, a friendly person willing to put the client first.” Forrest Brown also concurs: “I want a neat appearance and a smile, a person who makes a legitimately good appearance and who has a bit of composure, a good personality.”
Alan H. Brock, RDR, CRR, of Farmer Arsenault Brock LLC, Boston, looks for a prospective hire who will be “a good reporter, a team player, and a good representative of the agency to clients.”
Sharon Giraud, general manager of Atchison & Denman in Toronto, sums it up by saying, “I like to hire people who are articulate, well groomed, positive, polite, enthusiastic and have a great sense of humor. Sometimes skill level is second to the personality, because skills can be improved upon; personality can’t.”
Also important is the breadth of a prospective reporter’s knowledge. “A reporter today, particularly in a large metropolitan area, is likely to encounter testimony on a host of subjects, from financial analysis to biotech manufacturing processes to medical malpractice. Wide-ranging knowledge and curiosity are key, because a reporter can’t report well what she or he knows nothing about,” says Brock. “A liberal arts B.A., travel experience and knowledge of other languages are good indicators.”
Phyllis DeFonzo adds, “I share the view that college is definitely beneficial. In this day and age, we can never broaden our horizons too wide, especially being surrounded constantly by some very educated people.”
Knowledge of technology is another plus. Vicki Akenhead-Ruiz, RMR, CMRS, and an NCRA Past President, manages official reporters in New Mexico. In the job interviews she conducts along with a judge and court administrator, “We ask about computer knowledge and experience, what systems they have used and what types of software programs are they familiar with and can they use. We talk about technology in the courtroom, and I try to get their views and their perspective on the reporter’s role in the courtroom and within the judiciary, kind of their overview of the future and how we fit and how we contribute.”
NCRA Director E. Duane Smith, RPR, CRR, CMRS, of Court Reporting Concepts Inc., Baltimore, wants to know, “Have they demonstrated a willingness to embrace and to utilize new technology? If they’re doing realtime, do they know their stuff? Can they connect to the attorneys efficiently? Are they prepared to do some problem solving, if necessary?”
While realtime-writing ability may not yet be a prerequisite for all reporting jobs, many employers look for those reporters who are at least moving in that direction. In Lana Fruke’s courthouse, “Realtime ability is not essential to become an official, and it is not a part of our job description. However, we are in the process of putting together our CART policies and procedures, and we will be looking for realtime reporters to fulfill those needs. In addition, many of our judges are requesting realtime for trials on a daily basis.” Akenhead-Ruiz asks, “Are they certified in realtime and are they working on realtime? We try to hire those who have at least attempted to pass the CRR test.”
“I don’t require that anyone write realtime,” says James DeCrescenzo, RDR, CRR, CLVS, of James DeCrescenzo Reporting, Philadelphia. “However, since we charge more for realtime, about half the experienced reporters have chosen to become CRRs. The others are moving a little more slowly out of their comfort zone. The first step was asking everyone to use a notebook computer on depositions. From there, improving one’s writing style is a more natural progression.”
Lori Judd, RMR, owner of Lori Judd & Associates in Las Vegas, also doesn’t require her reporters to be able to provide realtime, but, she says, “because I charge for this service, I show them the financial incentives that are available if they do.”
Experience Preferred/No Experience Necessary
Some agencies look for experienced reporters simply because their caliber of work demands it. Jim DeCrescenzo prefers “hiring experienced reporters because they come in with verifiable skills and a fund of knowledge that takes years to gain. I have found the recent graduates have an unrealistic expectation of what professional reporters are.” Al Betz looks for “experienced reporters simply because younger reporters can’t handle the type of work I want to do.”
Lana Fruke agrees. “We prefer experienced reporters for our court. A year or two of depos, hearings, etc., seems to be a good preparatory course for our court work. We don’t want our per diems, who eventually turn into officials, to begin with something which might be over their heads. Of course, we attempt to ease them into our system, but sometimes a benign-looking, short hearing can turn into a reporter’s nightmare.”
But new reporting school graduates need not feel that it’s hopeless to compete against more experienced reporters. In the words of Forrest Brown, “I’d much rather have a young, energetic, beginning court reporter who is full of enthusiasm and not burned out. I look for a skill level that is competent, but they don’t have to come in writing realtime.” Sharon Giraud adds, “In some respects, I prefer new grads because they are not jaded, they tend to have better computer skills, newer tools and welcome encouragement and assistance. I have had more good experiences than bad with new grads.”
Alan Brock would consider a novice who is a “willing — no, avid —learner,” someone who understands that “finishing reporting school is only the first step of many in becoming a good, much less outstanding, reporter. Humility, combined with ambition, are excellent attributes for the novice.” Lori Judd goes for a mix of both. “It’s nice to have the experience, but I like the enthusiasm of new reporters. [But] I proofread everything a new reporter does for at least three months and make myself available 24/7 for questions they might have.”
Jim DeCrescenzo prefers “an RPR or higher, but I will hire someone I consider to have a good attitude, with experience, who is willing to work on attaining an RPR. The school of graduation is less important to me than the attitude and demonstrable skills of a potential new hire. There is so much a new hire needs to learn to become a competent reporter that his attitude toward listening and accepting information is critical.”
The Interview Process
But how, you may ask, do managers recognize these desirable qualities? Discerning personality characteristics is far from a scientific process. According to DeCrescenzo, “When interviewing to hire a reporter, assessing the right personality is probably the biggest difficulty I have.” DeFonzo attests that, “A lot of it is ‘gut’ — getting a feel from what their past work experience has been, length of time at different places.”
Akenhead-Ruiz tries “to discern whether or not they would be a team player, which is a tough one because they all say they are team players, if they think that’s what you want to hear. We do ask them to list their greatest strengths and then also their greatest weaknesses. Sometimes that helps, but not always.”
Brock feels, “A job interview allows the managing reporter to evaluate how articulate the prospect is, and thus tell a good deal about word and subject comprehension. Conversation about interests and background can reveal much about the prospect’s general knowledge. In particular, what does the candidate read?” Akenhead-Ruiz asks “for outside interests, hobbies and things they like to do outside of work.”
Sharon Giraud’s interviews “either take five minutes or two hours. If you get past five minutes with me, you have met the basics: You showed up on time. You presented well. You did not make any negative comments; e.g., ‘It is so hard to find parking downtown.’ You made positive comments: ‘I left early to make sure I could find parking and get here in plenty of time.’
“If you passed all these little things, then we move on to the two hours. To me, I see the personality of the person in this time period. I throw out challenges and scenarios, often ones I have found in [NCRA’s Online] Forum. For example, ‘If one lawyer says, “Off the record,” and the other says no, what do you do? If the witness is speaking too quickly and you have interrupted several times with no change, what do you do?’ I am not looking for a right or wrong answer, just how people think and react.”
When Akenhead-Ruiz and her team conduct an interview, “We ask them to define ethics and to give us examples of situations where they have had to apply ethics to a situation. I look at their communication skills, their résumé, the neatness of their written paperwork in the file and their appearance. I give them various scenarios and ask how they would respond to various situations. I talk about backlog and what they consider to be a backlog.”
Duane Smith asks pointed questions: “Are they willing and able to meet our delivery schedule? Do they hold the RPR, RMR, CRR, CMRS? Do they plan to attain any or all of these certifications? Answers to these simple questions can tell you a lot about a person.”
Fruke concurs. “Because of my NCRA involvement, I have a personal preference for reporters with NCRA credentials. If a reporter belongs to NCRA or professional associations in general, it tells me that this reporter tends to be a ‘team player’ and is focused on the overall good of the profession, admirable traits for official reporters.”
Because interviewees need to understand the particular responsibilities that go with a position, “We go over the job description, in detail, about what the job involves, especially the deadlines and appeals that are mandatory to get out in 30 days,” explains Akenhead-Ruiz. “We cover 17 judges, so we try to see if they would be the kind who could adapt easily to working with so many personalities. We ask what bugs them about other people, what do they like about other people, etc.”
Sharon Giraud states her position succinctly: “After all is said and done, we look for fit. The fit comes over time when a reporter decides whether or not they can work in our culture. Yes, we do have a company culture. This is something we foster and maintain. I might have the greatest reporter in the world, but if they are unhappy, think they deserve to be treated better than anyone else because they have a higher skill level or have been with us for X number of years, they won’t be able to work with us for very long.”
Whether you’re a seasoned reporter or a “newbie,” be prepared to furnish references. Duane Smith says, “First, I ask for and then contact all references” and ask whether this reporter “is a team player. Are they willing to go above and beyond the call of duty?” Akenhead-Ruiz does likewise: “We do check references carefully and ask for co-workers or other people they have worked with in the past.” Kanabay Court Reporters looks “for good references from a school or former agency.” Lori Judd agrees that it is very important to check references. “If they are licensed in another state I’ll generally check that out as well, due to a previous experience where a reporter came to our state to practice after being convicted of a crime in another state and having her license revoked there.”
Testing and Other Measures
Some agencies and court systems also require a demonstration of ability, beyond certifications. Jim DeCrescenzo gives a five-minute test that the candidate must write and transcribe. “The test is dictated slowly and may be transcribed with a dictionary. In this way I am able to determine whether the candidate even knows there is a difference between words such as ‘aid’ and ‘aide’ or ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary.’” Alan Brock feels that “perhaps most helpful is a flawless sample transcript of difficult material and/or inarticulate speakers requiring substantial reporter skill in rendering a clear transcript.”
If you pass Sharon Giraud’s initial interview process, “I then have you sit in with a senior reporter and job-shadow for a couple of days. We also provide you with access to our company manual, samples of transcript and a couple of hours with production so you see what happens to your end product. It also gives the rest of the team a chance to get to know you and sometimes I get additional info as to how that person is postinterview. I actually had a potential candidate make inappropriate remarks to a staff member during this process. He was not asked back.”
At Lana Fruke’s courthouse in San Diego, “We are mentoring new per diems instead of testing, because we are better able to do that at all four division locations. Mentoring means that a new reporter must sit in a criminal and a civil department for half a day each and produce a short transcript, which the court reporter supervisors review.” Duane Smith thinks it’s “also a good idea to get a look at their work. A reporter applying for a position here can expect to go out on several jobs with me. I want to see their work in person, and I also want to see how they handle themselves and how they interact with our clients. Are they polite and cooperative? Do they dress appropriately?”
The Bottom Line
In summary, when you’re seeking a reporter position, broad-based knowledge, some reporting experience and even merely nascent realtime skills can put you ahead of the pack. But while these attributes can always be acquired and improved upon over time, the most desirable characteristics a prospective reporter can bring to the workplace are a strong work ethic and positive attitude.
This article was originally published in the May 2002 JCR.
About the Author
Nancy J. Hopp, RDR, CRR, a principal in Sonntag Reporting Service, Chicago, Ill., is a JCR Contributing Editor.
Walking the Talk
Once you’ve landed a reporting position, how do you go about proving that you can “deliver the goods” in terms of work ethic and positive attitude?
Mary Ann Payonk, RDR, of Midlothian, Va., is “not a firm owner. I’m a worker bee.” However, her experience as a sounding board for firm owners has led her to some special insights. “In looking at a qualified group of reporters and trying to choose one to hire, I can’t imagine that a firm owner would not consider attitude the most important consideration in making the final cut.
“How can a new reporter impart a positive attitude? New reporters have it rough. It’s hard to get out in the working world and learn transcript formats and attorney names and how to act and where the jobs are and how to handle difficult situations and maintain control of the proceedings. That’s hard, and it’s stressful. And to stay positive during all of that is tough. But there are some things that I think impart a positive attitude from the reporter to the firm owner:
- Be available when you say you are going to be.
- Don’t cancel at the last minute.
- Don’t mark off to socialize.
- Strive to improve your writing and transcript production skills so you never have to mark off ‘for pages.’
- Fill out a good worksheet.
- Don’t worry about what the other reporters in the firm are doing, worry about what you are doing.
- Don’t gossip. Your firm’s business is your firm’s business.
- Always have cards and pass them out on every job. Be loyal to your firm.
- Pass a difficult situation on to the firm owner and trust him to do the right thing for the client and for you.
- Accept every job you are offered, but don’t work above your skill level. Better to shine on regular jobs than squeak by on a technical one.
- Realize that your first few years in reporting are learning years, and be a sponge.
- Keep your equipment in tiptop shape.
- Never complain to attorneys about getting a last-minute, unexpected overnight transcript order. Save it for the office manager.
- Never blame the office manager for a last-minute, unexpected overnight transcript order. The office manager is your friend.
- Set goals, meet them, exceed them.
- Set goals, meet them, exceed them.
- Set goals, meet them, exceed them
Hopefully, that attitude will turn into a serious work ethic in years to come for those who want it to.”