The court reporting industry already was in the midst of its most significant disruption in a century when the further challenges of COVID-19 reared its head. As the Speech to Text Institute completes its second year, we assembled STTI’s leadership for a conversation on the biggest issues face by firms, schools, and technology providers – Steve Towsend, STTI President and President and CEO of the Record Xchange; Anir Dutta, STTI Vice President and President of Stenograph, and David Ross, STTI Secretary/Treasurer and Managing Director & Head of Business Operations at Trans-Atlantic International Depositions.
In two or three sentences only, tell us what you see as the most significant changes that will take place over the next five years within the court reporting industry.
Townsend: The shortage of stenographic reporters will likely accelerate and that will put a lot of pressure in several areas. Deposition firms will need to adopt non-stenographic reporting methods more quickly; courts will be challenged to find qualified transcriptionists as the deposition market begins to draw more on the digital transcription workforce. Overlaying that will be a faster adoption of evolving technology solutions such as speech recognition, virtual meetings and web-based solution for reporting and transcription management. All of this was coming anyway, but the pandemic has acted as an accelerant.
Dutta: In my view the most significant change will be the evolution of a method-agnostic, connected ecosystem to meet the ever increasing demand for legal transcripts. We at Stenograph call it “Court Reporting 2.0.” The worsening supply and demand gap combined with advancements in cloud computing, Internet of Things and artificial intelligence will challenge existing norms in a way that has not been seen in the past century. It will inevitably create wide-ranging disruptions in every aspect of not only court reporting, but the entire legal ecosystem. Most importantly, the key to be sustainable in such a fast-changing landscape will be to keep oneself open to new ideas and be flexible to successfully fulfill the demand generated from an ever increasing amount of legal spend.
Ross: With Generation Z’s slow take up of the unique career in stenography, I believe the legal industry will have inherited new methods of recording legal testimony. Even without the backlog of cases since the Covid 19 pandemic, litigation is increasing with even more cases than ever before to record on depositions and arbitration, hearings etc. It’s inevitable there will be different methods producing a certified legal transcript and this is what I expect in the next five years.
Beyond the escalating shortage of stenographers, what other marketplace developments that firm owners and others might not be considering?
Ross: I think they all must contribute to educating their clients moving forward with new ways and new methods of capturing the legal record. The fear of change is the first thing to conquer. In my experience personally and professionally, I have witnessed incredible change moving from paper to electronic file, analogue to digital through music and film and photography. It’s incredibly difficult to get one’s head around achieving the same business and more business when one is “dedicated” to old and dated methods of production. A lot of this being stuck in the mud is from habit of trying to remain loyal to old methods and selling them as tried and tested as the only manner or quality one should be utilising in order to achieve the product one is selling. But this will be absolutely impossible if change is not embraced.
Townsend: Certainly, the technology changes I mentioned before – speech recognition and other AI technologies will be changing the landscape. I also believe that laws, both at the state and federal level, related to worker classifications will become a bigger issue. As non-stenographic professionals enter the market, firms will need to decide if they can continue with an independent contractor workforce model. Some states will be more challenging than others, but the issue will be nationwide.
Dutta: Investment in creating an efficient and connected, method-agnostic workflow is probably the biggest miss. Firm owners are so focused on covering their calendars that they miss out on the fact that a lack of certified stenographers is just one side of the equation. They should realize that they play as important a role as anyone else in exacerbating this shortage. They have to think critically about improving the efficiency of their office staffs as well as that of the reporters that work with or for them. Balancing both sides of the equation will be key to increasing efficiencies that will ultimately create additional capacity in an industry that continues to grapple with an ever-worsening supply and demand gap.
What business model adjustments must firms, courts, and others in the industry in reaction to the developments you describe?
Dutta: I don’t think it is as much as a business model change, but it’s more of a business workflow change. Every stakeholder in the ecosystem has to consider the end-to-end process rather than worry about their own individual needs within the value chain. They have to consider that in a world of hyper connectivity, existing silos, and value structures will not last long. Technology changes behaviors. We have seen it in every industry; legal is overdue.
Townsend: Incumbent firms will make adjustments around the edges and incremental in nature. They will transition to digital recording as their predominant method of reporting and they will adopt new technologies, but only those that fit into their current business models. New entrants will disrupt the market with new business models. Sometimes the incumbents are able to fend off the attack by the barbarians. Sometimes they don’t. It will be an interesting battle.
Ross: Everyone producing legal proceedings must focus on legitimizing more efficient ways to cover their workloads as caseloads increase. This is only possible if one evolves. We need to train more people to achieve new methods of capturing the record, with a new workflow and adhering to new standards.
What macro-level initiatives must take place collaboratively as an industry rather than by individual firms, businesses, and practitioners?
Townsend: Preparing for the future requires information. As the disruption continues, a national and collaborative effort is required to research and report how changes in the market are affecting different constituents. People on the East Coast may think that what happens in California stays in California, but it does not. Having an understanding of what is happening and why is something large firms can do, but the vast majority of firms need to collaborate to stay on top of things. dd to that the need to help coordinate the changing laws and rules related to both depositions and courts. Even the big firms struggle to stay on top of legislation and rule change as they occur.
Dutta: At a macro level, we have to unify as an industry to address the common challenge of the supply/demand imbalance. This will need all stakeholders to work together in a way that has not been seen in the past. I still feel very strongly that the court reporting industry is extremely fragmented and is just a collection of little silos, each one looking out for their own individual needs. The urgent need of this industry is a platform for everyone to come together and work collaboratively to address common challenges.
Ross: On a macro-level, we need to make sure these new manners of reporting are supported right from the courts down through the whole legal system as a new measure of equally high standards. Everyone in the industry offering legal support services and reporting services must collectively find a way to offer new standards of reporting to clients showing that they get exactly the same product in the end only better.
What role do you see STTI playing in the scenarios you just described?
Ross: Campaigning as an organisation to support all those above in our industry meet these challenges by lobbying to get rules changed where they need to be. To educate and open up the market to meet demand and achieve fair competition in the process.
Townsend: STTI is in a great position to act as a reliable and unbiased source of information for both the court reporting industry and the court and legal market generally. Large firms can rely on STTI to engage with legislatures and rule making bodies in a way that they cannot. And smaller firms can rely on STTI to provide legislative assistance plus market knowledge and education. Information and support that firms of all sizes can rely on to be true, and unbiased toward any particular method of reporting.
Dutta: Stenograph believes that STTI is an ideal platform to provide such thought leadership for the common benefit of all stakeholders in this industry. That’s a key reason why we chose to be one of the founding members of this organization.
Finally, pull out the crystal ball. Ten years from now, in what significant ways will the court reporting industry be different than it is now?
Townsend: The combination of traditional stenographic reporters exiting the industry and the introduction of new technologies will shift the focus of the profession away from the method of capture to the non-capture aspects of the business. Decoupling the record capture method from the other fiduciary and management responsibilities of the reporter and firm will open the door to a number of innovative and efficient models for capturing and managing the official record of court hearings and depositions. It will be interesting to see the innovation and which models take hold.
Dutta: I don’t have a crystal ball; however, I will provide my point of view on three key changes that I see coming in the next few years. Democratization of technology to overcome supply and demand imbalances: Cutting edge technology that allow for method agnostic record capture, editing and production will no longer be confined to the domain of the few or the big. Second, a unified approach to training and certifying practitioners: Organizations that embrace method-agnostic training and certifications will thrive; those that don’t will find it hard to sustain themselves. Third, new service offerings for clients that leverage a much more connected and end to end ecosystem: Those that leverage data and connectivity will find a way to be more profitable than those that don’t.
Ross: Stenographers will be a much-smaller part of the ecosystem; it’s just marketplace reality.