Court Reporting Students, This One’s For You

by cathrynbauer

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Those files aren’t going anywhere.

So I’m here with my office cat, riding out the storm.  We have had snow and dark skies, but now it’s just rain and wind.  Solangecat does not like wind, so I think I will be well-supervised today.  It is not a surprise to me that Shakespeare set Caesar’s assassination in March.  March is as trustworthy as Caesar’s coterie, at least when it comes to weather, and I am not surprised that he used this month as the backdrop for a playing out of skullduggery and treachery.

Yesterday can be turned into a great teaching moment for the future court reporters I know.  Yes, I will name the firm privately, but my point is not so much to avoid this particular agency as to identify what they did wrong, why it’s wrong, and why you shouldn’t work for a company who does these things even when you’re brand-new and eager to get your career started.  Aleece, Leah, Anastasia, Terri, Maurice, et al., if you see this type of thing, walk on by.  Please.  You all have excellent potential.  You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’re providing services and not getting paid for them, expected to do tasks not related to taking the record and producing a transcript, and having your work product handled by firm employees who are not knowledgeable professionals.

It began with an email from a certain national firm asking if I could cover a job for them on Friday.  I indicated that I was available, but I would need to know their rates and cancellation policy before proceeding.  Their response was that they paid the going rate for given areas, and I should email them what I wanted.  Unusual but not unreasonable.  So I did email them with the rates I am paid by my favorite agency, including that I needed payment if a job cancelled less than 24 hours before its scheduled start time (more on this later when I really get up on my soapbox).  I also put out the word on Facebook, asking if other reporters had worked with them.  Someone whom I respect highly emailed me to say she hadn’t been able to reach agreement on rates with them, and also, they automatically wanted a rough draft “just in case.”  I gather nothing was mentioned about payment for that rough draft which is a standard policy in reporting. They sent me back a reporter information form which I filled out, scanned, and sent back to them.  That is, I sort of filled it out.  I could not fathom why they wanted to know whether I had any health or medication allergies, so I wrote, “No comment.”  I was very uncomfortable with the level of detail they wanted.  The birthdate was justifiable, certainly here in the DC area where security checks are the norm rather than the exception.  And the questions about my writer, what software I used, where I’d gone to CR school, etc. were not all that unreasonable, but I wonder why they want to know that.  I am guessing it’s for networking purposes within the company — like I want a total stranger calling me up and asking me to help with the Lightspeed or Total Eclipse?   Anyway, I sent that off.  Twenty-four hours later, I got an email announcing they’d booked me for the job on Friday.  What?  Without my knowledge and consent?  Without written confirmation of the rates I’d be paid?  I was leaving Whole Foods in Annapolis when I got that message.  I thought about it, decided my visceral indignation was well-supported by logic, and pulled over to send a quick email that I would not take the job and would not be able to take future assignments for them.  Of course, I got a message saying that was an “about-face” and asking why.  I told them the truth in as few words as possible:  I had not received confirmation of the rates they would pay; I had not committed myself to the job, only said I was available and asked questions, and submitted their info form which I found intrusive because of (see reasons stated above).  So I get back another email saying that since they had given me the assignment, they’d assumed it was understood my rates had been approved (!) and because I said I was available, they assumed I wanted the job (!!).  Then I get another long, emotional email from management that was just weird.  She wanted “in my heart” for me to know why they were doing what they did and wrote three long paragraphs about why they needed an emergency contact.   Seems they had reporters in the WTC during 9/11, and there were problems with getting hold of their relatives to let them know they got out safely.   Item:  I hadn’t balked at the emergency contact info.  It’s standard stuff.  But I never did find out why they wanted to know about medications.  As far as food, turns out they sent food on the job, and they didn’t want to include anything that the reporter might be allergic to.  Gee, wonder who is expected to pick up and set out that food?  I have heard at conventions about firms doing this, and it is agreed among absolutely everyone in reporting whom I regard as credible that when an agency expects this, it’s a show-stopper.  You are a reporter, not a host or food server.

(An aside:  I did work for a firm in San Francisco that kept a nice luncheon spread on hand.  This was because because SF was something of a legal hub for the area, and it was not at all uncommon for lawyers to fly or drive in from the day from places including Sacramento, L.A., or western Nevada to conduct or attend depositions or hearings.  I was a bit dubious about this at first, but I saw how much easier it made things for attorneys not to have to leave the premises for lunch.  It really was more efficient for everyone; the depo got done, and they could make their plane.  The reporters’ entire relationship to the lunch buffet was that we could help ourselves if we wanted to.  I was never asked to so much as pick up a dish the entire time I worked for that firm before it was sold. )

The upshot was that I sent back an email saying that I understood that their policies worked for them, and thanks for the explanation.  However, it had further shown me that we would not be a compatible team.  Thank Goddess, I haven’t heard back from them again. And here is where I mount the soapbox and tell the students exactly what I want them to know, step by step:

– There is no assuming in business, period.  You get your rate sheet, whether prefab or individualized, from them in writing, whether snailmail, email, or fax, before you agree to take a job.   This point is absolutely not negotiable!   An assumption on either side in this area can, frankly, lead to you not making what you know you’re supposed to make from the job.

– There is no presumption.  You are committed to the job when you sent back an email, spoke to someone, or left a phone message that says, “Yes, I can cover this.  Thank you.”  Everyone understands where you will be going when.  Again, not negotiable.  An assumption on either side is simply too open to misunderstanding.

– An emotional outpouring of the sort in the manager’s email does not have a place in business, particularly when you don’t have a longstanding relationship with the recipient.  It is not professional and may well be an attempt to manipulate.

– You are there to report, period.  You don’t pick up and deliver food, deliver transcripts for your firm (except in the rare instance that it is ridiculously easy for you to do this), drive anyone anywhere (except in the odd emergency, and it’s okay with all the attorneys), or spend your evening at a copy center doing photocopying for one side or the other, a request that was actually made of me in one of the last jobs I did in the SF Bay Area.

– A rough draft is a service.  Lawyers don’t want it all that often in my experience, but this may vary according to location and what type of case it is.  You are paid for providing this service.  It’s not a good idea to discuss specific rates publicly, but if an agency wants you to give away your rough draft, well, not only is that wrong to start with, but they’ll undoubtedly be pushing you for more and more waiving of usual and customary fees for the services you provide.

Yes, you really have to do this!  If you submit to mistreatment, they’ll just do it to another reporter — and another — and try to get more and more out of you without compensation.

Dismounting soapbox now.

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