Legal world's virus woes reach court reporters amid deposition cancellations during lockdown

Since the coronavirus outbreak closed courtrooms statewide, court reporters are making concessions in how they do business. In line with much of California's shelter-in-place scenarios, that business takes place remotely now, if at all.

“What business?” Beverly Chambers said. “Even though we do Zoom (video conferencing) and telephonic (services), nobody's biting.”

Chambers owns American Reporting Services in San Rafael, a well-established court reporting business that, like many companies, specializes in conducting depositions for legal clients.

Depositions - which involve sworn testimony as evidence - make up the majority of the jobs of court reporters who work with law firms. Other court reporters are those in courtrooms transcribing testimony. They are often hired by the counties.

“I think they're waiting for the courts to get going again,” Chambers said, referring to law firms struggling to maintain their caseload calendar amid California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye's order suspending all jury trails in superior courts for 60 days. The two-month order was established on March 23, following a chain-reaction of government responses to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This includes a statewide order to shelter in place for all but essential businesses.

Since then, the legal proceedings conducted by these contracted court reporters in small, midsized and larger operations have gone remote like many aspects of life with the post coronavirus shutdown of the economy and societal norms.

“As soon as they did the order to stay, we received cancellations for all orders for depositions. So many businesses have been crushed by this,” Chambers said. “We're still open for business. We're all ready, all set - as soon as the attorneys are ready to go.”

She added feeling grateful that independent contractors like the court reporters she sends out on calls may file for unemployment with new rules imposed to stem the tide of a Depression-level plummet to the U.S. workforce. More than 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment in three weeks.

According to the National Court Reporters Association, about 32,000 of these stenography specialists exist in the United States. Four states represent half the pool - New York, Texas, Illinois and California.

Work moves to remote settings

Even as the move to take depositions remotely has proven to be a viable option, some lawyers have held back in calling on court reporting services. The verdict is still out on whether this industry is considered an essential business. The state classification simply lists the courts.

“They like to be in front of the person,” said Chambers

Angela White of AJ White & Associates in Sebastopol has moved her small Santa Rosa free-lance operation to tele- and video. This means using Zoom platforms and whatever means to secure the testimony.

Still, White admits she has not conducted “either as of yet.”

“These platforms will be our only hope of surviving should things continue on this route,” the certified court reporter said.

It's a test of survival between receivables and collections, she said. The two billing mechanisms are lopsided at best, but it's unclear by how much as she's delaying collections “as long as possible.”

“Prior to March 17, my office was very busy,” she said.

Heidi Hummler's remote Santa Rosa-based business, which recently merged with Verbatim court reporting services, is also offering a Zoom platform.

“In a court environment, the setting is important to the attorneys to see the expressions on jurors' faces or the judges,'” she explained.

Have camera, will travel

Since social distancing became the norm, videographer Mike Tunick of Rohnert Park has used a process called “pinning a witness” in which the testimony is recorded remotely, so no parties are in the same room.

Still, Tunick - who works with Hummler - described his phone line tied to work projects as “painfully quieter.”

The 30-year videography pro is now enduring a double whammy of sorts in that the wedding contracts have “already dried up because any 20-year-old with a camera” claims to have a mastery of his art.

The former, self-described “go-to guy” used to have enough business to subcontract other videographers for his clients, with court reporting services making up the majority of his business.

This line of work, which pays him an average of about $100 an hour at a three-hour minimum, has sustained him without even sending him south to the metro jungle of San Francisco. The North Bay offered enough business with clients he felt he has come to know personally and professionally.

“Sonoma County has that small town feel, opposed to the San Francisco rat race,” he said. “I've gotten to know the law firms here.”

Now, he's hoping these relationships matter in this time of need.

“There's definitely going to be a learning curve on how these (satellite procedures) catch on,” he said.

Tunick empathizes with the attorneys since many like to raise their hands to object during in-person testimony. Online video conferencing tends to stymie those power-grabbing maneuvers.

“It's all about control,” he said. “They always admonish each other in the beginning. Then, they stomp on what each other is saying.”

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