How to Become a Court Reporter

Do you have a knack for typing? Are you a stickler for grammar, punctuation, and syntax?

Do you also have an interest in the legal field?

If so, then a career as a court reporter may be an excellent career choice for you.

Court reporters – often called court typists or stenographers—transcribe spoken words during legal proceedings for court records.

Stenographers keep typed transcriptions of the exact words of judges, lawyers, and witnesses during court proceedings.

Stenographers are important because they create the official court documents that are used in future legal proceedings and adjudication.

What Does a Court Reporter Do?

Court reporters keep verbatim written records of words spoken during court proceedings.

Stenographers record proceedings using a steno machine, a smaller version of a typewriter.

Stenographers use a variety of short-hand notations to accurately transcribe speech.

Theses exact notations used depends on the situation and specific court. Typically, stenographers will record a shorthand document in real-time then later go and transcribe the full text to another document.

Stenographers are most commonly employed by courts and legal professionals, though stenographers also find work creating closed captions for TV broadcasts and real-time voice to text translation. Because the transcription takes place in real-time, stenographers need to have a very fast typing speed. Most stenographers can type at least 200 words per minute, usually higher.

Stenographers must also have great attention to detail and accurately transcribe proceedings as their transcriptions become the official legal record of the case.

The steno machine used by court reporters looks like a mini version of a typewriter. Steno machines have fewer keys than a normal alphanumeric keyboard, so stenographers record syllables words, and phrases by pressing multiple keys at the same time. This kind of “chording” allows stenographers to rapidly transcribe entire words or phrases with a single hand motion. Steno machines are tricky to operate and require a substantial amount of training to accurately use.

Court Reporter Duties

While the majority of court reporter duties consist of transcribing verbal records, court reporters also perform different tasks.

Some duties of a stenographer include:

  • Attend depositions, hearings, proceeding and any other legal events that require a written record
  • Record spoken dialogue using a special steno machine
  • Read and playback any portion of proceedings at the request of the judge
  • Clarify unclear or ambiguous statements or testimony
  • Prepare final written transcripts
  • Edit any typographical errors in transcripts
  • Provide copies of transcripts to relevant parties
  • Perform real-time translation for any deaf or hard of hearing individuals

Desirable Skills & Qualities of a Court Reporter

Being a stenographer is not an easy job. You must have unparalleled typing skills as well as a sharp eye for grammar, punctuation, and syntax. You must also be very meticulous and detail-oriented as court proceedings proceed rapidly and involve a lot of spoken words.

Attention to Detail

Perhaps the single most important skill for a stenography is a high level of attention to detail. Stenographers must be able to accurately transcribe any words or gestures performed in the court and must do so in a quick manner. If they are not paying attention, they could miss out on large segments of proceedings and have an incomplete transcription.

Grammar, Punctuation, and Proofreading

Stenographers must also have excellent language skills. Spoken dialogue does not include indications of punctuation, so a stenographer must extrapolate where to put commas, periods, and any other punctuation marks, Interestingly, being a good stenographer does not always mean being grammatically correct; it is about recording accurately what is said which may not always be grammatically correct. That being said, stenographers must be able to parse the meaning of any grammatically incorrect statements an individual may say. They must also be able to type with little to no errors.

Professionalism

The courtroom has sometimes been called the “church of the civic religion.” Like churches, court proceedings are extremely formalized and have a very specific operating procedure. Stenographers need to understand these procedures and work with professionalism and poise. They will often be required to interrupt proceedings to clarify ambiguous words and phrases and they must be respectful and professional in doing so.

Neutrality

Court reporters are expected to remain neutral and not express their individual opinions on court proceedings. Stenographers must treat both parties in a court proceeding equally and not give special attention to any one individual. Court reporters are also expected to not enter into any special contracts or services with one party; they must provide the same price and structure to all involved parties.

Confidentiality

Court reporters work in a wide variety of legal environments. Very often, the information they are transcribing is confidential. As such, stenographers are expected to keep a tight lid on any information they hear in court proceedings unless it is explicitly marked as public knowledge.

Organizational and Time Management Skills

Many court reporters work independently and have to manage their own cases and schedules. As such, they need to have good organizational and time management skills. They need to be able to keep all their documents in order and be punctual.

Typing Skill

Of course, court typists must have excellent typing skills. Many stenographers can easily write more than 200 words per minute and some reach up to 300 words a minute. A steno machine has a different layout than a regular keyboard so they need to learn and be practiced at its specific operation.

Many stenographers must learn alternate methods of transcription such as recording individual syllables and sound rather than specific words.

Court Reporter Education Requirements

Becoming a court reporter requires specific training and certifications. In general, you must first complete a necessary post-secondary program in stenography, which can take about 2 years. Many states then require potential stenographers to pass a licensing exam before they can legally work as a court reporter. There might be special exams or assessments based on the state and the applicant’s chosen transcription methods.

Many court reporters opt to acquire voluntary certification in court reporting from a national organization. While not necessary to practice, such certifications look good on job applications. Some certification exams, like the National Court Reporter Association (NCRA) and National Verbatim Reporters Association (NVRA), have certification exams that will also qualify candidates for licensure.

Accreditation

Several stenography programs are accredited by the NCRA.

While not required to land a job as a court reporter, an accredited court reporting program abides by standards set down by the Registered Reporting Professional (RPR) designation and ultimately look better on job applications.

Accredited programs also have high-quality education standards so you can be sure you are getting the best education.

They also tend to have very high standards for graduating, including a 95% accuracy on a number of dictation tests.

What You’ll Study

The exact curriculum depends on the specific program, but most programs share a core set of courses and topics they cover.

Some courses may include:

  • English grammar and vocabulary
  • Communications
  • Medical/legal terminology
  • Foundations of law
  • Word processing
  • Real-time transcription
  • Court procedures

Stenography programs teach the basics of English grammar and vocabulary and how to apply those rules to stenography. They also include various courses focusing on the legal process.

Training Information & Types of Court Reporter / Stenography Degrees

There are two major education options for potential court reporters / stenographers.

They can either attend a court reporting certificate program or obtain an associate’s degree in court reporting.

Court recording certificate programs normally take about 1-4 semesters while an associate’s degree normally takes 72-168 credit hours (2 years full-time study).

Certificate programs tend to be focused solely on court reporting techniques while associate’s programs supplement those courses with general knowledge classes in English, psychology, and history.

In general, both certificate and associate’s programs require at least a high school diploma or GED to apply.

Option 1: Court Reporter Certificate

The best part of being a court reporter is that it does not require a formal 4-year degree.

The easiest way to become a court reporter is to attend and complete an accredited court reporter certification program.

Upon completion of the program, candidates will be granted a certificate and be qualified to take any licensing exams and enter an entry-level position in the field.

Certificate programs tend to focus on the basics of court reporting, including steno machine operation and any required legal/medical jargon.

To graduate, students must pass a final exam and achieve a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0.

Attending an accredited certificate program is not required to obtain your license and get a job, though it certainly helps on that front.

Admission Requirements

Applicants are normally required to have a high school diploma and send in standardized test scores.

The average tuition for a certificate program in the US is about $4,500 in-state tuition and about $8,000 out of state tuition.

Courses

A hypothetical court reporting certificate curriculum might look like:

  • Court reporting fundamentals
  • Reporting technologies
  • Machine shorthand
  • Legal/medical terminology
  • Clinical reporting
  • Real-time reporting

Option 2: Stenographer Associate’s Degree

The second option for potential court reporters is to attend a stenography associate’s degree program.

Like a court reporter certificate program, associate’s programs cover the basics of court reporting and steno machine operation.

Associate’s programs also allow students to choose an area of specialization such as captioning or real-time translation.

Associate’s programs tend to let students take supplemental electives in core subjects like English, math, psychology, communications, and computer science.

Along with general education, associate’s programs focus on specific writing and composition techniques like editing and proofreading. Often, stenography degrees may be subsumed in other degree programs, like English, Journalism, and Communications.

Admission Requirements

Like a certificate program, the only general requirements for an associate’s program is a high school diploma or GED. Many programs may require you to send in standardized test scores and some may require letters of recommendation. If the program is located at a traditional university, the application will most likely be the same as the general university application.

Courses

Associate’s level courses cover the basic of court reporting and also specialized topics.

A potential associate’s level curriculum for a semester might look like:

  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Transcription
  • Phonetics
  • American Sign Language
  • Judicial Procedures

Depending on the specific area of specialization, you may have to take courses focusing on criminal law, criminal proceedings, and digital voice recording technologies.

Online Court Reporter Programs

Both certificate programs and associate’s degrees in court reporting are available online.

These programs can range from full-time to part-time online instruction. The only downside of online stenography program is that they normally do not provide practice equipment so you may have to buy your own steno machine.

Online programs also tend to have less networking opportunities and job opportunities but many online programs do have job placement professionals for students. This means they will help you find a job after you graduate.

These potential downsides are balanced by the flexible schedules and relatively low tuition prices of online programs.

How to Get Your Court Reporter License

Almost every state requires stenographers to pass a state-regulate exam and receive their court reporting license before the can legally work as a stenographer.

In general, a stenography license focuses on one of the following methods of reporting:

  • Written shorthand
  • Machine shorthand
  • Oral stenography
  • Other approved methods.

To apply for the exam, you must pass any state-required pre-screening exams, have at least a high school diploma or GED, and pay any relevant application fees.

Some states, such as Texas, for example, may require a criminal background check or a drug screening. 22 states currently accept the NVRA examination for licensing purposes while some states have specific exams set down by the state.

Some states, like Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky, and Maine, do not have any court reporter certification requirements.

In general, these exams will consist of 2 parts: a written knowledge portion and a skill assessment. Some states may require you to become a public notary before you can take the exam.

The written portion involves general knowledge about court reporting techniques and procedures. You must obtain a score of at least 70% to pass the written portion.

The skill assessment involves testing stenographic skill in a range of courtroom situations. In general, you must achieve a wpm count of at least 180 and an accuracy of 95% to pass. The exact passing scores may slightly differ from state to state and on the specific test.

License Renewal

For states that require a court reporter license to operate, license holders are generally required to renew their license after a set period of time, generally 18-24 months.

Part of this renewal involves taking continuing education classes to keep up to date on any novel techniques, technology, and any changing court procedures.

Continuing education courses typically are in-person and take a lecture format. The NCRA offers a number of CE courses for court reporters that are eligible to count towards CE credits on a renewal application. Renewal applications typically have a small fee as well.

If your license expires and you take too long to renew it, you may have to take the entire licensing exam again. Make sure to be diligent about renewing your license; operating as a court reporter with an expired license is generally not allowed and you could be hit with fines, penalties, or even have your license permanently revoked.

5 Steps to Become a Court Reporter

Let’s go over the basic steps to becoming a court stenographer.

Step 1: Attend an accredited court reporting program

The first step is to get the right education. As stated previously, the two main education options are a court reporting certificate program or a stenography associate’s degree. Once completing your chosen program you will have the skills and education to pass the licensing exam.

Step 2: Pass the licensing exam

The next step is to pass any state-mandating licensing exams. Strictly speaking, you do not have to have completed any program to apply for the exam and you can learn the skills on your own, but this is very hard to do without proper tutelage. If you are seriously strapped for the money you could practice on your own and take the exam but it is almost always a better option to take an accredited course.

Step 3: Acquire and extra certifications (optional)

While not required, several court reporter certification programs are available that train students in any extra skill needed to become a court reporter. These extra certifications are not required, but they look good on job applications and can set you up with good networking opportunities.

Step 4: Find a job

The next step is to find employment. Most programs have job placement departments that match recent graduates with entry-level jobs and internships in the field. The more certifications you have, the easier this process will be.

Step 5: Maintain/renew your license

If you live in a state that requires a license to work as a court reporter, you will need to maintain and periodically renew your license. Maintaining your license involves taking continuing education credits and sending in any necessary renewal forms and fees.

Court Reporter Salary & Growth

Court reporters have great starting salaries and have a lot of potential for career growth. The median annual salary for court reporters in 2018 was $57,150 ($27.48/hr) and the career field is expected to grow by 3% from 2016-2026. This rate is a bit slower than average, but the field is large and there are a lot of job opportunities speaking in absolute numbers. Stenographers that are trained in non-legal areas (e.g. closed captioning, communication access relations, etc) tend to face better job prospects.

In general, court reporting is a very safe and low-impact profession that is not associated with any long term injuries or conditions. The only things that may crop up are hand fatigue from typing so much and related hand issues like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Stenographers may also face mental and psychological exhaustion from the extremely precise and attentive nature of their work. Depending on the court cases they are covering, they may be distressed hearing the details of crimes and criminal proceedings.

Court Reporter Associations, Groups & Resources

  • National Court Reporter Association (NCRA)
  • National Verbatim Reporters Association (NVRA)
  • Court Reporter Association (CRA)

Frequently Asked Questions

It depends on the specific program you take and how long it takes you to pass the licensing exam. Court reporter certificate programs normally take about 1 year to complete. Factoring in a month or so to study for the state licensing exam, you can start working as an entry-level court reporter in as little as 12 months.

If you are working towards a stenography associate’s degree, then the timeline is a bit different. Associate’s degrees normally take about 2 years (4 semesters) to complete. So following moving from an associate’s degree to employment takes around 2 years.

Court reporter machines, called steno machines, are a modified version of a typewriter. Instead of alphanumeric keys like on a standard keyboard, steno machines have a smaller “phonetic” 22-key panel which is used to key out coded numbers, phrases, words, and sounds. Steno machines can register multiple key presses at once (a technique called “chording”) so stenographers can record entire words and phrases with a single hand motion.

Since they have such a strange layout, steno machines require quite a bit of practice to get used to. Advanced stenographers can type up to 300 words per minute with 99% accuracy. Most modern steno machines keep an electronic recording of typed materials which is then later transcribed into full text, either by hand or by a computer program.

To become a certified stenographer you must first pass a state-mandated licensing exam. About 22 states use the NCRA exam and others have state-specific exams. A handful of states do not require certification to work as a stenographer, but they may require other things like proven work experience. Make sure to check any licensing requirements specific to your state.

Most certifications exams require candidates to achieve at least 180 wpm. The best stenographers can easily reach 250-300 wpm.

Court Reporter Video Overview

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Noel Griffith, Ph.D.
Noel Griffith in Doctor of Philosophy with a strong interest in educational research. He has been an editor-in-chief of CareersWiki.com since 2014. Noel is an avid reader (non-fiction), enjoys good food, live theatre, and helping others make wiser career decisions.

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