A Year Later: Long-Term Effects of the Pandemic on Court Reporting

It was a year ago that STTI and Verbit collaborated to deliver a webinar on how the court reporting industry was adjusting to the significant and sudden restrictions imposed on it by COVID-19. During a panel discussion in April at AAERT’s Executive Forum, when the audience was asked in a poll what percentage of the market would remain remote after the conclusion of the pandemic, the audience—predominantly firm owners—felt that 60 percent of depositions would remain remote.

With more than100 million Americans fully vaccinated, it seemed an appropriate time to explore, again, the long-term impact of the pandemic on the business, turning to Pete Giammanco, president and CSO at U.S. Legal Support and Neal Gross, chairman of Neal R. Gross & Co.

 

Dr. Fauci says we can get together, unmasked, in small groups by the fourth of July. When, if ever, do you think the legal system will return to pre-pandemic “normal?” 

Giammanco: “While we’re all eager to return to ‘normal’ in terms of safely gathering with family and friends, the pandemic accelerated technological advancement within the legal industry, which will have a lasting, positive impact for decades to come. The cost-saving and efficiency gains afforded by the new virtual work environment have led to the widespread acceptance and adoption of remote formats for depositions, hearings, arbitrations, and even trials, which is likely here to stay. As the pandemic carries on and state and federal courts continue to adapt in an effort to keep the wheels of justice turning, we believe virtual proceedings will remain a viable, and often preferred, option for many cases.

 

“Professional court reporters, and the legal industry at-large, did a fantastic job of quickly adjusting to remote proceedings this past year. The willingness to learn and adapt was amazing to witness and be a part of. We’re constantly working with reporting professionals on ways to refine the remote deposition process to make it easier on them and our mutual clients.”

Gross: “It’s very apparent that the introduction of virtual and digital remote transmission of proceedings that came with the pandemic are aspects that are here to stay forever. As such, in a narrow sense, then, there will never be a ‘pre-pandemic normal’ as we have now introduced elements in the legal system that have made significant changes and will persist. It is even possible that venues where capture and transmission have been restricted or barred may come to be more widely available. Our industry may want to consider the business implications of proceedings getting completely out of the control of a court reporter on site, and the possibility that even transcripts may be able to be produced by practitioners far removed from the venue.”

A year ago, we pushed the theory that a percentage of the deposition market would remain remotely conducted. What percentage do you now think will remain remote and why?

Gross: “That’s very hard to tell. The comfort level with remote depends on so many very relevant factors: the taste of the calling party attorney and/or his/her comfort with remote from the get-go; the progressivity versus the conservatism of the jurisdiction in which proceedings take place. Those that are more conservative may try to retain the older, in-person only versions, whereas those that are more progressive may opt for experimenting with remote options. The preference of judges will be relevant, those who may or may not accept the dependability and authenticity of a record produced in a way that they may not feel appropriate or in some other way fitting. It’s impossible to put a number on this, but for our industry, the important aspect is that with education and guidance, if we want more remote, we may be able to bring it about gradually if we work hard at it. If we don’t want it, but the legal community does, then we will have to do it their way.”

What flaws in the traditional court reporting model do you think the pandemic exposed?

Gross: “Actually, the opposite is true: Where stenos on site may have been over their heads in technical vocabulary and/or speed of verbal delivery, now with the opportunity to have at their disposal audio and/or video recordings of the proceedings, which they can listen to over and over, the quality of their capture and transcription has undoubtedly soared. These are not flaws; this is improvement. The pandemic and accommodations to it have in fact improved a great deal of work product.”

Were it not for the pandemic, we likely would have spent more of the past year talking about the integration of steno, digital, and voice writing into the deposition eco-system. Has there been any noteworthy progress there and what has it been?

Giammanco: “With due reason, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly received the most attention this past year. While we worked diligently with stenographers, the court reporting community, and our clients during the transition to remote formats for depositions and other proceedings, we also continued to explore possible solutions to the ongoing stenographic shortage in order to provide relief and continue to meet the demand of clients. Due to the national court reporter shortage, we can no longer rely solely on a dwindling community of stenographers to meet the needs and demands of our mutual clients.

“Based on the current and increasing shortage of stenographers, it remains evident that this painful deficit cannot be remedied by stenographers alone. In widely publicized literature, industry experts and consultants have opined that at least 100,000 students need to be currently enrolled in stenography training programs in order to effectively address this gap. Current enrollment is estimated at less than 3,000 students. While the pandemic provided some temporary relief from the shortage due to state-mandated court closures, the reemerging effects of the shortage, now coupled with the backlog of cases due to the pandemic, require a proactive approach of leveraging stenographers, voice writers, and digital reporters. The good news is there is no shortage of work or opportunities to employ multiple methods of preserving the record for years to come. Skilled and professional stenographers will always be in demand.”

 

What types of litigation do you envision will lend itself better to being conducted remotely?  

Gross: “Of course, depositions, but as mentioned previously, it remains to be seen if this will persist. But also, any and every aspect of litigation can be, and is, being done remotely. It’s only up to the parties to actually come into the modern age and have the reporting and transcription done digitally that is the key factor. It is up to our practitioners to educate and demonstrate to the public that the highly reliable, cheaper, more efficient methodology of digital can do everything the older systems did.”

Obviously, the pandemic has dominated most conversations of the recent past, but are there any other noteworthy developments in the court reporting industry over the past year?

Gross: “Frankly the shortage of providers with steno capability has only gotten more intense. This is noteworthy because the legal community has treated this reality with their heads buried in the sand, and they are finally coming to realize that, like global warming, ignoring an impending disaster is not any good at protecting the value of life and work in the modern age.”

Where is ASR in being able to serve a significant role in transcript production?  

Giammanco: “It’s no surprise that technology has had an immense impact on the legal profession. Every aspect of the practice of law, from how clients are kept informed to how cases are argued in a courtroom, has been profoundly shaped by the intersection of technology and information. As the technology gets more sophisticated and powerful, the impact becomes progressively greater. In recent years, the use of artificial intelligence and automated speech recognition in the legal industry has become more widely adopted, as law firms and legal departments begin to actualize the benefits including increased productivity, reduced costs, the development of data-driven strategies, risk assessment and more. U.S. Legal Support has been exploring and developing new service offerings for our clients that leverage AI, ASR and machine learning to accurately and efficiently accomplish necessary tasks. When it comes to transcribing speech to text, where appropriate, digital reporters coupled with ASR technology can offer a viable augmentation to traditional stenography or voice-writing. In fact, many of the computer aided transcription systems (CAT), used by stenographers to transcribe testimony today, leverage this same technology. Advancements in AI technology will continue to expand speech recognition technologies to effectively and efficiently turn speech into text for all methods of capturing the record. As a profession, we should not fear these advancements, but leverage them strategically to our advantage.”

Gross: “It’s a generation away, but coming on stronger every decade.”