Scopists' Intro

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A Basic Introduction to Scoping

Scoping, performed by scopists, is called that because, in the days when the court reporting profession became computerized, their services were performed on large (desk size) minicomputers which had little phosphorescent-green video screens which would show about 80 characters across but just a few lines at a time. These screens looked a lot like oscilloscopes, and they felt like you were reading by periscope! Prior to computerization, court reporters used the services of people called notereaders. Notereaders would read the actual paper shorthand notes that a court reporter would write, typing the entire transcript from scratch. Prior to computerization, the single-biggest leap in technology for the transcription side of court reporting was lift-off tape for your electric typewriter.

I guess I'd better explain the court reporters' situations in order to lead into an explanation of what a scopist does.

There are two major categories of court reporter: official or freelance.  An official reporter is one that works for a court in state, district, circuit, federal, or similar jurisdictions. They take down court testimony; i.e., trials and hearings, arbitrations, etc., just about eight hours a day, five days per week. If a hearing is held or a verdict is reached that requires followup, as in an appeal or additional testimony anticipated, or in response to motion hearings, the lawyers will usually order a transcript. Not all court record is transcribed.

Freelance reporters are available for hire by attorneys for depositions, statements, and occasionally trial testimony. Before a case ever gets to trial, a process occurs which is known as discovery.

Discovery is a process whereby the lawyers obtain and share the underlying data of an issue of dispute, or a claim, or a cause of action in civil court. Documents are produced and exchanged, and depositions are taken of the people who produce these documents, thereby "proving up" the authenticity of the documents. Also, testimony from witnesses is taken in depositions before a trial, so all lawyers know what to expect from the testimony (No Matlock maneuvers in civil litigation!). There is a tremendous amount of jockeying and production occurring in the pretrial process, and reporters profit from several of them.

When a reporter takes a job, they write down the testimony on their steno machine. These machines are all computerized, storing their notes digitally as well as on paper. Reporters write in machine shorthand, hitting key combinations in "strokes," or multiple keys at a time, to record the phonetics of the conversation. A stroke is one of two things: it is a single syllable or it is a "brief form." A brief form is a single stroke that represents a phrase; i.e., the steno equivalent of "BRUP" on a steno machine can be the equivalent of "burden of proof," or "FURL" could be the equivalent of "if you recall." Note that reporters all personalize their shorthand "styles," so a scopist has to be practically symbiotic with their client. After the job is written by the reporter, they plug their machine into a computer and "translate" their steno notes into English text. To do this, a reporter uses a CAT system (Computer Aided Transcription). This system will compare the steno notes which are digitally retrieved from the steno machine against a personal dictionary that the court reporter maintains. This system will convert to English words everything it's encountered before that has been added to the reporter's dictionary. Reporters also use subdictionaries, but that's too technical at this point. After the translation occurs, you have a document which is mostly in English. This is where the scopist comes in.

A scopist will receive a rough translation, usually along with audio tapes and underlying documents, usually exhibits which were discussed during the proceeding. A scopist will use whatever resources are provided, as well as any they have at their disposal, to produce a clean transcript for the reporter. In this process, a scopist will help maintain a reporter's dictionary by making "global" entries. A reporter may make a typo, or write something several ways, or may take new terminology, and none of this will exist in their dictionary. As a scopist edits a transcript, they will either replace bad strokes, etc. with the correct record, or they will "define" these strokes on the computer by making a "global," or global replacement. This tells the computer to add this stroke or combination of strokes into the dictionary, as well as throughout the transcript. This drastically speeds up the reporter's work and the scopist's work. But a good scopist should be fairly fluent with machine shorthand in order to accomplish this goal. Note that a scopist should produce the cleanest possible transcript, but in the scheme of things a scopist is the midline of the process. If there are names, etc. that cannot be looked up, you mark it in the transcript and the reporter will resolve it.

After scoping, a transcript will usually go to a proofreader; often the reporter client, or a hired final-proof person. Nevertheless, a scopist wants to absolutely minimize the need for final corrections; that's what they're hired for.

After corrections are made, a reporter will sign a certificate to the transcript, and their production department will produce a bound, printed copy of the transcript, along with any accompanying exhibits. This printing will be: an original, plus one copy for the attorney who orders the reporter's services; one copy for any attorney who orders one. These days the lawyers are also provided ASCII transcripts, as well as condensed printings and word concordances, and even transcripts that are processed into formats usable by special law-firm software used for transcript "digests."

Now, you probably wonder if scoping will hold your interest. Well, obviously it does mine, because I've been around a while! However, I must say that not many people have "what it takes" to be a successful scopist. For several years I managed the computer room of a court reporting firm's production department, and one of my tasks was to train scopists. The attrition rate was very high. There are several characteristics that define (to me) a successful scopist, and they must all be present or developed; some are just personal traits and characteristics, and some are learned skills that take some time to acquire.

First, the job itself must hold your interest. I am a person who finds many, many subjects to be of interest. I enjoy scoping depositions of expert witnesses, delving into the technical nitty-gritty of asbestos litigation, oil and gas exploration and production, heavy medical litigation, even structural steel and silicone implant/explant procedure! The topics are broad and far-reaching in the litigation world.  

This interest is important for a good scopist because, without following the lines of thought being discussed in the testimony, a scopist can miss the subtle nuances of the conversation, and often use the wrong words in the context.  Also, most reporters are very preoccupied with getting the phonetic record on their machines, so they may sometimes mishear testimony. It is probably the single biggest responsibility of the scopist to lend a second "ear" to the testimony (if audio backup is available) and make sure it is correctly transcribed!      

Another important characteristic is flexibility!  There are rules of grammar that apply when producing transcripts of depositions, court testimony, etc., but these rules are very basic. Grammar and grammatic use is actually very flexible, although most people do not realize that. Reporters tend to fall into one of several grammatic style categories, but all will have their own nuances and ideosyncracies. A scopist working for more than one reporter must be able to "tune in" on each customer's style as easily as changing hats. I keep a database with dope sheets on each of my customers, because a fair percentage of them will call only a few times a year.

Another aspect of flexibility is flexible working hours. I'll often work 14 hours a day or more when I have work on the shelf, but then things slow down and I'll have three or four days off, which suits me just fine! Some rush jobs require me to work a 24-hour stretch, but I charge accordingly.  Flexibility is also required in a freelance scopist's money management.  As in any freelance situation, cash flows can be quite varied over a year's time, dependent upon one's clientele, so it's important to keep a nest egg for the lean spots.

Another important trait, one which is learned, is the ability to follow along on your screen what's being said on an audio tape. It's not as easy as it sounds, and usually you make a couple of passes as you clean things up on rough jobs!

Another acquired trait that is necessary is the habit of looking things up! I don't jest when I say my reference library is a source of pride!  A good scopist looks up anything that they're not positive about, including name spellings, etc. Of course, most of the jobs you work on will have supporting documentation in the form of exhibits.

Finally, a good scopist must be able to read machine shorthand.  Machine shorthand is the language of the court reporter, and knowledge of shorthand theory is mandatory for a scopist to effectively assist court reporters with their dictionary maintenance, which in turn provides a permanent return of higher efficiency for both the court reporter and the scopist.  

There are several types of positions that scopists can get into as far as employment is concerned, and it depends on the scopist's needs as well as the needs of the reporters in that scopist's area. Some scopists prefer to work for a firm at an hourly rate, like a regular job. The concept is that they get paid less when translated into a page rate, but they receive steady employment in exchange. In practice, the pitfall is that they're not contracted to keep you, and a few slow weeks could bring on a layoff! However, some firms are both busy and fair, and can be quite lucrative to work at. Furthermore, a position like that is a good beginning because one might get additional training, and probably exposure to several reporters' styles.

The alternative is to freelance, which is what most scopists do in my area. Personally, I have a major client, and I also do overflow. Some of my overflow clients have their own scopists, but the freelance environment can be feast or famine, so overflow in times of plenty is standard operating procedure. Sometimes reporters will go on a series of depositions because they're familiar with the terminology or the case itself or because it's their personal client that orders the deposition. If that happens and the transcripts are expedited, reporters pull in the overflow by utilizing their list of backup scopists. Further, I have a few reporters who call me only when they're too backlogged to do their own work, and they call only a few times a year. Finally, I have federal court reporters that I call whenever I have spare time. The federal folks have lots of work, but their page formats are huge (30% more per page than state court or freelancers) and you kind of have to charge lower prices with them. That translates to more work per dollar, but I hate to sit around, idle. You have to charge them less to get their work because they have rates that are federally set, and they're a lot less than the freelance market. Freelancers generally create their own work volumes by selecting their clientele accordingly.   

Freelance and official reporters usually charge a given rate for an original plus first copy, referred to as an O+1, and a given rate per additional copy, based on a standard turnaround period which can vary from two weeks to one month depending on the jurisdiction. A surcharge is added for one-week turnaround, three-day expedited delivery, or overnight or same day "daily" copy, with daily copy being twice regular price. Freelancers usually add a surcharge for heavily technical or heavily medical testimony (usually 30%). As a scopist, I emulate these common rate structures. However, under virtually all situations a scopist, freelance or employee, does not produce the final printouts and therefore does not receive income from transcript copies sold by the reporting firm.  

Conversely, a "page" for these proceedings will be within certain guidelines. For example, the generous federal format provides 64 characters across, while freelance formats are generally around 55 characters across. Virtually all page formats are 25 lines per page, numbered (double-spaced), as opposed to the 55-line letter page standard.      

Rates vary state to state, and income depends on this and on a scopist's ability and willingness to produce. Depending on a scopist's own desires and abilities, income-to-time ratios can be maintained whereby you have as much time or as much money as you care to have.  Note, however, that you have to manage these things on a macro level, and there will always be spikes in both productivity and idle time.

Some reporters prefer to do their own scoping whenever time allows. These reporters will hire a scopist only occasionally, when their backlog grows. The alternate philosophy is to send everything out to scopists. Many very good reporters do this because it frees their time to take more jobs with less burnout; further, many reporters don't care to live through a proceeding three times (in the taking, the scoping and the final proofing); finally, it involves a second mind and a second set of ears. A person who mishears something once will tend to mishear it again; additionally, some typos repeatedly escape the eye for one person but not another. Spell-checking will not generally catch misplaced words, and testimony is usually so specialized that a speller program is sometimes more trouble than benefit.      

Freelance scopists face the same problems of most entrepreneurs in that cash flow has to be managed because work can be inconsistent.  In my area ,winters are usually fairly quiet. Some people get insecure after a week of no work, but if you've set up your clientele effectively, you can count on plenty of work to come. However, these are concerns that need to be addressed.      

Advances in computerization, particularly software, has proved to be a pitfall for scopists. In this day and age, there are a half a dozen popular CAT systems that reporters use. A scopist needs to have available the proper system for their clientele, and this software is not cheap! At current rates, purchased new, the low-budget end of these packages, designed for scopists only, having no translation capability (which is what the reporter needs) will START at around $1,200 for a stripped down, software-only deal; however, at least one vendor offers a system for use via subscription. Note that reporters can pay up to $15,000 for their systems!

If you're interested in pursuing scoping as a profession, there are really only two ways to do it: OJT and school. In the past three years, some community colleges (especially if they have a court reporter program) and many private technical trade schools have started offering certificate programs in scoping. These range from a few months to a year, and, frankly, almost none of them are going to help you get work. However, it is a prerequisite to getting your foot in the field. On -the-job, entry-level positions are harder to find and will generally pay less, but that's basically the only other alternative.

The reporting climate is varied state-to-state, because state statute guides the discovery process (the groundwork for going to trial) in the vast majority of claims. "Tort reform," a system of minimizing costs for litigation, is taking its toll on the profession in several states; however, there are still many good environments for court reporting and, therefore, scoping. In fact, the reporter/scopist symbiosis has branched beyond the legal profession and is providing realtime (live) and "canned" captioning for television, the Web, and other media. Either way, you want to test your local market to see whether you want to focus on it or remotely servicing reporters in distant areas.  Personally, I think you really want a local anchor; then you can comfortably add on some remote service. The best thing you can do is inquire locally, with either the reporting firms in your area or with the state court reporter's association in your state, and also your local courthouses. Further, talking to the reporters themselves may help you target your potential clientele and perhaps help you decide which CAT system to lease or purchase - a critical decision. The Department of Labor provides job outlooks for various professions, and Court Reporting is included. Currently, and for several years now, the job outlook for Court Reporting has been very favorable, with jobs outpacing the population of professionals. Link: U.S. Dept. of Labor - Occupational Outlook for Court Reporters, Stenographers & Transcriptionists

There are probably only several thousand scopists in the U.S. today, but the trends in reporting tend to be twofold: larger firms which are keeping a minimum number of reporters as busy as possible; and cottage-industry reporters who tend to have large "spikes" of backlog and quiet. In either scenario, the scopist is a tactical advantage for a reporter, and therefore a favorable environment for the scopist exists.

A major trick in locating your clientele is to "shop" for reporters you work well with, have a good feel for the workload you can expect to handle, and don't get discouraged. It takes only one or two reporters to get up and running, depending on their average production volume, so the environment should be fairly "target rich." Also, I've found fliers to be very effective. A reporter may not need help the minute you call but may neglect to get your number and put you in a file. However, if you send a brochure or flier, they're more likely to file it away. Then, a few months later, you may get a call when that reporter is in a jam!    

To start into scoping from outside the reporting industry, you will want to check the trade schools and community colleges in your area, or visit scopists.com's CAT Links or Marketplace sections for listings of schools and online programs. Many institutions offer financial aid to those who qualify.

- W. "Charley" Sober


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