Tom Richardson credits fictional defense attorney Perry Mason and the climactic trials on the long-running television series for prompting him to become a court reporter more than 30 years ago.
But the romance of participating in a high-profile court case or deposition and translating riveting testimony seems to be lost on the younger set. Industry experts say the dwindling number of licensed court reporters and the closure of a number of court-reporting schools have mired the profession in a severe employment slump.
"I am in a desperate search of trying to find a court reporter," said Richardson, president of locally based Stewart Richardson & Associates, which has two vacancies. His travels to find job candidates earlier this month took him to schools in northwest Indiana and Iowa.
Nationwide, the number of court-reporting schools accredited by the National Court Reporting Association in Virginia has dwindled by nearly half, from 114 in 1995 to 61 today, according to the association.
The number of schools and court reporters-roughly 50,000 nationally-has stabilized the past few years, though, providing optimism for a reversal, said Marshall Jorpeland spokesman for the NCRA. Yet the dearth remains.
"Within the last decade, there came a point when enrollments started to decline and the number of schools started to shrink," he said. "As a consequence ... the number of students has significantly decreased."
The College of Court Reporting Inc. in Hobart is the only school in Indiana accredited by the NCRA. Wilson College on Indianapolis' south side offers a parttime program in which students attend classes two evenings a week, disqualifying it for full-time NCRA certification. It is accredited by the Indiana Commission on Proprietary Education, however.
Exacerbating the situation is an abysmal graduation rate that normally hovers around 10 percent, according to an NCRA case study. The rigors of mastering a stenograph machine and typing at speeds of up to 225 words per minute within two to three years traditionally have deflated graduation rates. But with far fewer schools, the problem is magnified.
Moreover, students who may have pursued a career as a court reporter instead are using the same equipment to provide captioning for television networks. The Federal Communications Commission in 1997 approved regulations mandating captioning on all programming by 2006.
To help meet the requirements, a bill providing $100 million in grants over five years to train court reporters and closedcaption providers has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
The lack of court reporters in Indiana is mostly felt by firms such as Stewart Richardson and Connor & Associates in Indianapolis, which both employ about 20 independent contractors to predominantly handle depositions outside the courtroom.
Free-lancers receive commissions, don't get benefits, and pay their own taxes. A beginning court reporter typically makes $45,000 to $50,000 annually.
State courts in Indiana are not required to have court reporters present for trials. In Marion Superior Court, for instance, most legal proceedings are tape-recorded with the exception of major felony cases that might involve a homicide, said Kelly Anglemeyer, director of court operations.
Proponents of court reporters argue that alternative technologies such as voicerecognition recording and the placement of audiotape recorders in the courtroom are limited and their transcriptions not nearly as accurate as those of a court reporter.
The perception that court reporters ultimately will be replaced by alternative technologies is hurting the profession's ability to attract enough candidates as well, industry experts said. But the public might be surprised at how high-tech the industry has become, said Mona Cross, director of Wilson College.
To be sure, the traditional method of typing text from the 20-key stenograph onto a roll of paper is antiquated. Rather, the machine now is a computer that spellchecks and formats the condensed text and saves it on a hard drive for translation into words by software.
Trial lawyers who want "real-time" reporting hire court reporters to translate testimony immediately to their notebook screens so they don't have to wait the following day for a transcript.
"This is a skill that has to be truly mastered; it can't be rushed," Cross said. "You have to relearn the entire language, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist or I couldn't have done it."
Fifty-five students, the majority of whom are female and range in age from 35 to 45, currently are enrolled at Wilson College. Its graduation rate mirrors the national average of roughly 10 percent, Cross said.
In Indiana, court reporters do not have to be certified, meaning a student can land a job without graduating. Cross said the lack of certification also might be affecting graduation rates.
Wilson's evening classes and part-time status appeal to those who already may be working and are seeking a career change. Its graduates, though, fare as well as their younger counterparts. Cross boasted of the college's 100-percent placement rate and noted that demand has outstripped supply.
"I've had so many calls for reporters in the last three to four months," she said. "Honestly, I wish I had more people to place."
Ivy Tech Community College once approached Richardson for input about offering a court-reporting degree but never pursued it, he assumed, due to the marginal graduation rates.
In an attempt to boost its enrollment, the College of Court Reporting in Hobart has introduced an online program so students can complete coursework from home.
Tuition costs at public schools, including equipment and supplies, average $5,000 to $8,000 in total. Private schooling might cost $20,000 to $25,000, according to the NCRA.
The ability to learn a skill in three years at a relatively low cost and the allure of making good money upon completion is what attracted Michele Dew, 26, to court reporting. Dew graduated from the AIB College of Business in Des Moines in 2001 and immediately joined Stewart Richardson.
"You can make as much money as what you're willing to work for," she said. "There is a lot of possibility. That is a big thing for me."
Flexibility is inherent as well. Freelancers such as Dew typically can schedule depositions around appointments and activities. In contrast, they must work on short notice, often not receiving an assignment until the day before it takes place, nor knowing how long it will last.
"Every day is a different day," said Craig Williams, co-owner of Connor & Associates, which is looking to fill one position. "You just don't know what kind of testimony you might be taking."
Indeed, Williams' most memorable encounter involved the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, who, along with family members, was a target of a 2003 federal suit claiming infringement.
Jackson, lounging at the Canterbury Hotel downtown, sat just 3 feet away from Williams for nearly seven hours as he transcribed his statement.
Williams recalled how he was instructed not to leak word of Jackson's visit, only to learn later that the eccentric star's shopping trip to Circle Centre mall caused quite a commotion.
One of Stewart Richardson's more notable cases is the Central Library's lawsuit involving cost overruns on its six-story addition.
The local law firm Tabbert Hahn Earnest & Weddle LLP, which represents the library, has retained the agency.
"It's a very interesting career; there's nothing boring about it," Wood of Wilson College said. "Reporters are highly regarded by attorneys and judges because the service we provide is essential to the whole legal process. We're an integral part of the legal system."