In the courtroom and in the deposition chamber, the court reporter is an essential part of making the justice system work. Indeed, Judge Greg Galler, who presides over Minnesota’s Washington County Courthouse, has written, “One of the most important parts of a court proceeding involves someone who almost never says a word: the court reporter.”

Enjoy this while it lasts, because the heady days ofCasamo_shutterstock_213537334_RobotReporter easy access to court reporters, deposition videographers, and legal transcriptionists are coming to an end. Ducker Worldwide, the employment trends analysis firm, has taken a peek ahead for the industry. Its report on the future of the court reporting labor market contains alarming news for everyone.

You Might Want to Panic a Little Now

Right now, there are about 32,000 court reporters working in the United States. The industry does a poor job of marketing court reporting as an exciting career however, so the number of new workers entering the field is far too low to replace those retiring each year. And court reporters are retiring, because around 70 percent of the workforce is age 45 or older.

You might think this creates lots of opportunities for fresh college graduates looking for a stable and secure career. You would be wrong. “Entry-level” jobs are scarce because of the demanding level of skill mastery necessary to perform the work adequately; two to four years of specialized instruction are usually required. In addition, state governments across the U.S. are cutting funding to judicial programs—and trimming the pay rates for court reporters  is part of the package. Declining pay scales mean that court reporting simply isn’t very attractive to new entrants.

Ducker Worldwide predicts that, by 2018, the United States will experience a “critical shortfall” of nearly 5,500 court reporting positions.

When Technology Tries to Fill the Gap

State legislators tend to dismiss this concern. “Look, we have to trim budgets somewhere,” they say impatiently. “We have microphones and we have video. We don’t really need people as court reporters anymore.”

That experiment has been tried, and the results aren’t encouraging. The story of relying on recordings for legal proceedings is packed with unintelligible testimony, garbled responses, and equipment failures. Every experienced lawyer (and most judges) recognize that having a court reporter on hand is vital when the technology fails.

There’s a reason why human reporters are considered indispensable today, even when sophisticated technology is available; computers and recorders are just not equipped to resolve the ambiguities of oral communication. Human judgment is needed.

This Is Why They Call Economics “The Dismal Science”

So what happens down the line when there are too few court reporters to meet the need? The fundamental principles of free-market economics take over. When demand for reporters stays almost steady but the supply drops, attorneys and court systems will begin a bidding war to secure the services they need. Court reporters’ wages rise, and rise again—and the new wage rates will eventually attract more people to the career.

This “shifting of the demand curve,” as economists call it, doesn’t happen overnight; the transition will take years. In the meantime, the chief practical effects will be a net increase in court reporters’ incomes (hey, thanks for that!) and a slowdown in the justice system when fully booked reporters simply aren’t available to take new assignments.

What do you think about these predictions about the court reporter labor market? How does your law firm plan to meet the challenge? What could be done today to encourage more young people to enter the profession?

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