Finding My Niche: Working as an Official Reporter

By Rhonda Menor

When I graduated from Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wis., I had a job waiting for me with a small freelance firm. After about six months I determined that this wasn't for me. Oh, it wasn't that I didn't like freelancing; I downright hated it. I hated traveling. I hated not having a definite income that I could depend on. I hated not having benefits - no paid vacations, no insurance and no retirement account. I hated paying my taxes quarterly. I hated lugging my equipment around everywhere I went. I hated the last-minute cancellations, and I hated working someplace different every day. Bottom line, I hated reporting.

Law enforcement. Now that intrigued me. I love criminal law, so I opted to dispose of the steno machine and pursue a career as a police officer. After several applications, I was accepted onto the Oshkosh Police Force, and I was on my way to the Police Academy!

Meanwhile, Judge Charles Heath's court reporter was about to retire, and he needed to find a new reporter. In my freelance capacity I worked for him frequently on a per diem basis. As his reporter's retirement drew near, Judge Heath offered me the job, and he kept offering me the job each and every time I worked for him. I wasn't interested. I hated reporting and was on my way to the Police Academy.

Then one day a sergeant from the Marinette Sheriff's Department questioned me regarding my plans to become a police officer. Did I really want to give up the prestige (yes, prestige) of reporting to fight the drunks on the streets? Did I want to trade in my business attire for a blue uniform, bulletproof vest and a gun? Was I willing to work shifts and holidays? He told me to think about it carefully before I made the decision to leave reporting. In retrospect, I see how desperately I needed a mentor at that critical time in my career, someone to show me my options and encourage me to not abandon the skill I had worked so hard to master.

That was a long, sleepless night. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I needed to give the officialship a chance. If I tried the officialship and didn't like it, I could always go into police work, I reasoned; but if I went into police work and didn't like it, I would lose my skill. The next day was a turning point in my career and my life. I accepted the job in Marinette and started my lifelong love affair with court reporting.

Love Affair With Official Reporting

Why the drastic change in my attitude? What did the officialship offer that freelancing didn't? Why did I find one so distasteful and the other so enjoyable? Perhaps you will find your answers mirror some of mine.

Reporting, after all, offers something for everyone. There are varying skill levels and varying stress levels associated with each reporting opportunity. Many freelance reporters say they'd never want to be an official; yet many officials, myself included, shudder at the thought of freelancing. Additionally, reporters who have reached the burnout level were re-energized by maintaining their career as a reporter but changing directions. Now, with the added options of captioning and CART, the opportunities are endless. You just need to find where you fit in, like I did.

The readily apparent advantages to the officialship were a private office, a regular paycheck, a great benefits package, which included paid vacations, life and health insurance, and a retirement plan, a permanent workstation in the courtroom, ready access to the court file and the law library, and a boss. One boss: the judge.

There are a great many qualifications inherent in becoming an official. I have discovered, however, that my perception of essential qualifications for myself as a reporter differed significantly from my judge's; what I thought was important was not necessarily what my judge felt was important. What he was looking for in a reporter I found rather surprising and initially offensive; however, upon reflection, I discovered that his requirements for me were much the same as my requirements for him! I had expected that skill was the single most important element to being a successful, respected official court reporter. I have always challenged myself to be the best I could be, and I was somewhat deflated when I learned that my judge's greatest concern and most significant qualification went beyond my skill and directly to my personality and my work ethic.

In a small county, the reporter and the judge spend a great deal of time together. It was imperative to Judge Heath that his reporter be someone that he not only trusted, but also someone with whom he could work. Out-of-town assignments would occasionally take us away from our home county for days, if not weeks, at a time.

These times are some of my most precious memories because it was a time of building on our relationship. It was also a time for clearing the air, developing policy and discussing concerns. It was time that was uninterrupted by any periphery. There wasn't a judicial assistant, a clerk, a telephone or any other third party privy to that time spent in the vehicle. It was just us, the judge and the reporter. Aside from being attentive to the road, I had my judge's full attention, and he had mine. We resolved a lot of issues on those trips and, therefore, developed a harmonious working relationship. Those trips created some precious memories for us, memories that no one else can share with him because no one else is his court reporter.

It is essential that trust and respect flow both ways in an officialship. Without it, the relationship has no foundation and is destined for failure. Officials who do not respect their judges can't possibly experience total fulfillment in their jobs. Likewise, officials who lack respect from their judges work in constant frustration.

In all honesty, your approval of your judge is just as important as your judge's approval of you. Thus, it is highly beneficial if you are able to work for a judge on a per diem basis prior to accepting an officialship. It will give you some insight into whether you will be able to work with that judge on a permanent basis.

My relationship with my judge was the key to my enjoyment of and pride in my job. I worked for one of the best, most respected judges in the state, in my humble opinion. He was fair, wise, well versed in the law, tough on crime, controlled his courtroom and was extremely conscientious of not only the record, but of me personally. He applauded my accomplishments as a reporter and encouraged my participation in my state and national associations. He was also sensitive to my personal life and my role as a wife and mother. He had a life outside the courtroom and recognized that I did also.

Although I am an official court reporter, I have never held myself out as "just a court reporter." I am not content in that box. Because I work in a small county, I am not simply a court reporter. My goal is to be indispensable to my judge. I give him the best my skill can offer, but I strive for so much more. I act as a buffer between him and the public and/or bar. I intercept ex parte communications when possible. I do a great deal of the scheduling for our court, and I answer the phone when our judicial assistant is away from her desk. I look ahead on the calendar and remind him to prepare for upcoming cases, and I complete his monthly pending case certifications and expense vouchers. I keep his confidence, and I treat him with the utmost respect.

In my courthouse, both reporters, the judicial assistant and both judges take turns making the coffee. We're a team, and I truly enjoy being part of the judicial team. I am a highly visible representative of my judge, and it is essential that I represent him well at all times.

A New Start

The timing of this article is interesting because it is an emotional time of transition for me. A reality of the officialship is that judges come and go. It was only a couple months ago that my judge of 20 years came into my office, closed the door and told me he was retiring. It was an emotional scene. An era was ending and I faced, with trepidation, a new beginning.

The next several weeks were a whirlwind of activity. We anxiously awaited the gubernatorial appointment to complete Judge Heath's six-year term. When the appointment was announced, my new judge quickly involved me in the flurry of activity surrounding the planning of his investiture, a truly impressive, memorable event.

Because I was the reporter for Branch I, and because he intended to re-appoint me to the position, the incoming judge, the Honorable David G. Miron, asked that I report his investiture for him. This was one of the most difficult jobs I have ever done because I was so emotionally involved in it. It was also the only time in my career where I didn't feel the need to mask my emotions. Mixed tears of sadness and hope trickled down my cheeks as I watched my judge of 20 years step aside and invite his successor to assume his place on the bench. The mutual tears and the ensuing hug I received from Judge Heath were a true testament to all those in attendance of the special relationship that can be achieved between a reporter and a judge.

I am now making the transition to a new judge. I am at a definite advantage in this new relationship because as district attorney, Judge Miron has worked with me for 10 years. He is already intimately familiar with my skill, my personality and my work ethic. His confidence in me has already been reflected repeatedly by his inclusion of me during the planning of his investiture and now his reliance on me as he assumes the bench.

Although I worked with him for many years, I didn't know what to expect once Judge Miron became my judge. Some people's personality can change drastically once they don the black robe. Because my love for my job hinges on my respect for my judge and his respect for me, a change of judges can be a truly frightening experience. Judge Miron has more than proven himself in his first few weeks on the bench. My hopes and expectations have been far surpassed thus far. I am delighted by his control of his courtroom and his ability to render a decision. He is well prepared, well organized and, significantly, continues his sensitivity to the making of the record. We will certainly make a great team.

In Wisconsin officials serve at the pleasure of the judge. Therefore, it has been imperative throughout my career as a reporter that I treat all attorneys with respect and give them the best service possible. I certainly didn't anticipate 10 years ago that our brand-new district attorney would one day be my judge. I am quite certain that Judge Miron would have opted to fire me if he did not have full confidence in me as a reporter and as a person. I have been nurturing that relationship for years totally unaware that he would some day be my judge.

I love being an official reporter and take great pride in what I do. I am so thankful that 20 years ago Judge Heath didn't take no for an answer. I have found my niche! I am the official court reporter for the Honorable David G. Miron.

About the Author

Rhonda Menor is an official court reporter in Marinette, Wis. She says that her move to Marinette had one other major benefit: She met her husband, a police officer, in court five months after moving there.