Their fingers are fast, their lingo is their own and their hearing is precise.
They are court reporters. There are five court reporters who serve in Crow Wing County District Court in Brainerd: Amy Lundgren, who serves as clerk for Judge Kristine R. DeMay; Victoria Dudeck, who serves for Judge Christopher J. Strandlie; Kelly Robinson, who serves for Judge Earl E. Maus; Scott Engen, who serves for Judge Erik J. Askegaard; and Paula Weitnauer, who serves for Judge David J. Ten Eyck.
Court reporters, also known as stenographers, use a 6-pound stenotype machine, which features 22 keys, to capture, verbatim, the court record. The keys do not spell out letters, but rather they spell out syllables phonetically, using a combination of letters. Originally, reporters took shorthand notes and typed them onto carbon copy paper. Now, they are able in real time to connect to paperless machines that hook up to iPads, laptops and computers to capture the record at a typing pace of 225 words per minute.
The Brainerd court reporters have a combined 130 years of experience and want people to know the demand for the profession is high.
Ducker Worldwide, a Troy, Mich.-based global consulting and research firm, estimates the aging pool of current court reporters, plus the declining enrollment rates in training programs, will create a shortfall of nearly 5,500 this year alone. Forbes has named court reporting as one of the best career options that does not require a traditional four-year degree and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the court reporting field is expected to grow by 14 percent through the year 2020.
Depending on the industry, their experience and the amount of work they take on, court reporters can make upward of six figures a year, statistics show. Official reporters working for the courts receive a salary, benefits and extra income for transcripts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the median annual pay for court reporters in 2016 was $51,320.
Court reporters in Brainerd said they not only work in the court system but also do closed-captioning, creating text from the spoken word for the deaf at schools, churches or other places.
Lundgren, who has been a court reporter for 25 years, said many people think court reporters may be a thing of the past, as industry professionals question whether digital recording and voice-recognition software can replace court reporters.
"There is no substitute for a trained human to adjust for nuances like a soft-spoken witness, people talking over each other, or accurately reporting exchanges," Lundgren said. "There have been many cases where digital recordings have failed. Can you imagine Siri taking down a high-level crime, such as a drug offense or murder charge? There's no comparison."
In fact, technology is only making court reporting more in demand.
"Many people don't realize that closed-captioning is really live reporters with headphones, hooked up to broadcast television shows and news, and also transcribe events for the hearing-impaired, as well as provide real-time transcripts for everything from business meetings to legal depositions. We're in a huge shortage crisis situation."
In Minnesota, the only school offering court reporting is Anoka Technical College, which has 100 percent placement after graduation, Lundgren said.
To become a reporter, a person needs to pass a speed test and complete an associates of arts degree.
"I was able to complete the program at Rasmussen Business College in less than two years, but I also took day and night classes to finish early," Lundgreen said. "I was in a typing class and I could type fast. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do ... and someone came to Rasmussen and talked about the profession and that there was a shortage."
When Lundgren finished the program she went to West Virginia and then came back to the Brainerd area. She began working as a legal secretary for Fred Casey, who later was appointed as a judge in Brainerd. He took her with him and she served as his court reporter for 15 years. When Casey retired DeMay was appointed to the bench and Lundgren has served as her reporter for the past 10 years.
Robinson said she was fresh out of high school and didn't know what else to do, so she tried court reporting and likes it. She started in 1981, worked in Texas and moved to the Brainerd area in 1999. She did freelance reporter work and has been Maus' court reporter for the past seven years.
Dudeck said she fell into court reporting by accident and she enjoys the job as everyday is different. However, she said it is difficult.
"There is a 90 percent drop-out rate," Dudeck said. "It's not learning the machine that is hard. It's getting the speed that is difficult. The correlation is to playing the piano. Anyone can learn to play the piano but how many can get concert level, pianist level."
Lundgren agreed. "It takes time to master the speed. You can't be one to overanalyze shorthand, but just learn it by repetition," she said.
A tip court reporters have for those who would like to give the industry a shot is to go online to learn more and see if they would like it or not. Go to www.discoversteno.org/learn/ to learn more. This field would be great for people who are fast at texting, the court reporters said. Once in the career, people have to purchase the machine and software, which could cost about $5,000 to $7,000, plus annual fees to keep current on technology. Computer-aided software is used to expand the dictionary to adjust to the reporters writing style, and the person has to differentiate synonyms, homonyms, and have strong English and punctuation skills because people don't talk in complete sentences, Lundgren said. Lundgren said she has typed as high as 380 words per minute.
"Stenographers learn a lot of briefs or phrases to type in one or two strokes," she said. "One of my favorites is 'It is the sentence of the law the judgment of the court' which is typed 'STLORTS.' The other four reporters I work with are always emailing each other common phrases and saying, 'How do type this? How can we do it in less strokes to type faster?'"
Court reporters are silent in the courtrooms. They cannot show their emotions and take sides on the court cases: they stay neutral.
Lundgren, Dudeck and Robinson all said they love their job as it is interesting/fascinating work, each day is different and it's steady work.
"I like that we are doing something crucial to the justice system," Dudeck said. "Without us people wouldn't be able to appeal (their case). We capture the record. It's not open to interpretation."
"I love my job," Lundgren said. "No two days are the same. We hear a variety of different subjects from medical, legal, technical and learn about other professions. It's interesting, challenging and I enjoy being the silent person in the courtroom. It's not always easy to keep a poker face. Sometimes I have to bite my cheek or hold emotions in. Just when you think you have seen and heard it all, something will catch you by surprise."