It was Friday, March 6th of this year when my son, Dylan, a third-year student at the University of Virginia, arrived home for spring break. At the time, we didn’t even consider that Dylan might not return to school the following Sunday. Indeed, there was talk of him going back a few days early. He and his friends were hatching a plan to watch Virginia begin the defense of its 2019 national championship in men’s NCAA basketball together, beginning with the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. This would be followed the next week by the larger NCAA Tournament—“March Madness.”
By the next day, Saturday, we began to think that the realities of COVID-19 were likely to extend Dylan’s spring break by a week or maybe two, this as the university assessed the threat of the virus to students and faculty. Over the next few days, we watched all major sports abruptly shut down their seasons, including and especially March Madness. We heard about Tom and Rita Hanks testing positive for the virus. And, it took only until the following Friday—just seven days after Dylan came home—for us to realize that Dylan would not return to school at all, that he would complete his semester online. It did not occur to us, even at the end of that week, that all of Dylan’s courses would remain online through the fall semester.
This is our reality in 2020 … and probably beyond.
During initial conversations with people from throughout the court reporting industry back in March and early April, there were a lot of people scratching their heads, fearful about how the marketplace would react to a pandemic. The legal system could only pause for so long, they reasoned, but many likewise felt that courts and law firms would be fiercely resistant to altering their rigid practices to allow for remote proceedings. There was a small percentage of firms and courts that would migrate to remote out of necessity, but they felt that most would not and, so, they predicted a massive backlog that would build and build until face-to-face proceedings could resume.
It didn’t take long for those realities to shift, for law firms and courts to adjust to the new realities themselves and for states to begin rapid suspension of rules that previously had felt uncompromising. This allowed for the rapid expansion of remote proceedings. The backlog never materialized in any meaningful way. The long talked-about widespread use of remote proceedings—and all of the benefits it would accrue to reporters and firms alike—was here, almost overnight. And those court reporting firms that didn’t move swiftly to adjust for the new marketplace realities would find themselves in a lurch.
Fast forwarding several months, as I have spoken with firm owners, I have been amazed to hear not just that the volume of their business has returned to normal, but that many actually are busier now than they ever have been. In the meantime, they are hearing anecdotally from clients who question why they ever bothered to get on airplanes or spent hours driving to depositions that can easily be accomplished online.
They talk about court reporters who are thrilled with not being subject to days wasted by last-minute cancellations. They speak of reporters who are thankful to work in a job that lends itself so readily to a virtual environment. They’re glad not to have to put their health or that of their families at risk in order to perform their jobs. And many reporters now are hopeful that, if and when the pandemic ends, that remote appearances remain an option.
Is the situation ideal?
Of course not, but the resourcefulness of firms and reporters to accommodate the evolving needs of the marketplace no doubt will pay long-term benefits for all involved. Many are predicting that the shift of the industry to remote proceedings is likely to accelerate other changes taking place in the marketplace. And it is now inevitable that a portion of the market never will return to face-to-face proceedings, for reasons of cost and convenience.
But, at the same time the pandemic has demonstrated that continued change is inevitable, it likewise has shown that the industry must work together to find solutions. It has shown that it will take a more unified community of professionals to work together to address common challenges and to ensure that—above all else—the quality of the legal record remains our top priority.
As for Dylan, he’s adjusting to his reality as well, that the ramifications of the pandemic will cross into his spring semester, wiping out a good portion of his experience as a college senior. On any given day, he can be mad or sad about what he’s missing out on—the parties, the football games, the classroom experience—but he also realizes that others have lost far more than he has. “Besides,” he said to me recently, “do you realize that the pandemic will allow Virginia to be the defending national champion in basketball for at least two years?”