A Washington, D.C. Tale of Two Seats

This is a court reporter’s tale of two seats, and why one of these seats was not like the other…

I had been hired for a very high-profile case wherein I was booked as the court reporter for several depositions. As is my custom, I woke up extra early, dressed appropriately in my blue business suit and two-inch heels and headed out the door with plenty of time to avoid any possible traffic interruptions. I like to arrive early at the deposition site and working in the D.C. Metropolitan area always means a huge amount of traffic and backups,  regardless of what route I take.  It’s just part of living and working in Washington, D.C.

Once I arrived, I made sure the video operator had the case caption and we synchronized our clocks, his on the video camera, mine on the laptop.

Court Reporters need to be able to see and hear clearly.

Court Reporters need to be able to see and hear clearly.

With the setup of this particular conference room, the video operator was at the end of along table and he was placing the witness in front of the backdrop at the other end of the table.  As is customary for court reporters, I set myself up next to the witness on the side of the table.  The attorney representing the witness arrived and sat opposite me at the end of the table next to his client.

Finally, opposing counsel arrived, rushing through the door and frantically rolling his huge document suitcase to the corner of the room. This was obviously a man in a hurry. Then, without greeting or preamble, he immediately turned around and curtly ordered me to move from my seat next to the witness so he could sit in that chair. I was supposed to sit in the chair directly behind him.

Now, this wasn’t a special, comfy seat with heating elements to keep my bum warmed during the deposition.  It was a regular, old conference room chair, identical to the others in the room.  But that isn’t even the point.

I’m really not an obstinate court reporter, and in most circumstances I am happy to move anywhere counsel would like me to sit while I’m recording a deposition, as long as I am able to see and hear the witness clearly. But with over 20 years of professional experience as a court reporter, I’ve learned a few things about video depositions.

One of those things is the benefit to my clients of sitting next to the witness. This allows me to clearly hear what the witness is saying, especially if they are soft-spoken or inclined to mumble. With someone between me and the witness, I may not be able to hear him or her clearly – and that means an inaccurate transcription. Not good.

Something else to understand about positioning the court reporter is this: if the court reporter can’t sit right next to the witness, at least make sure they have a clear line of sight directly opposite the witness so the reporter can attempt to lip-read if they need to. Again, this is especially important if the witness is soft-spoken, mumbles, or has an unusual accent.

And, here’s the other thing – opposing counsel was… an exceptionally large gentleman. There was no way, sitting behind him, I would be able to see around him to view the witness’s face. Trust me on this.

I attempted to explain to opposing counsel that I was not trying to be difficult, but that I needed to be able to see the witness clearly in order to provide him with the most accurate deposition transcript. Since the deposition transcript would, most likely be his trial transcript, you’d think he would have immediately seen the wisdom of my plan.

You would be wrong.

He proceeded to lecture me that it was his deposition proceeding, so he would sit where he wanted.  I could use my digital backup recording if I had problems after the deposition was completed, he explained.

Since I am a professional court reporter, I gave this another shot. I tried to explain that although a digital recording is a backup, that is what it is: a backup. Unless you have no other option, a digital recording should never be your first “go to” for transcribing a deposition accurately.

Stenographic notes are the official record of the deposition.  Moreover, court reporters are not required to maintain a digital recording for seven years.  However, we are required to maintain the notes of the testimony for seven years. If the case gets drawn out for years (and many do) having an accurate stenographic record of the witness deposition can make the difference between winning and losing the case.

All my explanations went unheeded. maybe he was having a bad day; I don’t know. But – of course – this witness was ridiculously soft-spoken, and he had an unusual lisp, and he had a tendency to cover his mouth with his hand while speaking, muffling his voice as he did so.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the witness gestured a lot with his hands as he spoke and kept knocking the microphone off his lapel. Not only could I not see the witness (at all), most of the time I couldn’t hear him, either.

All this meant that we had to keep pausing to replace the microphone, and I also had to keep asking the witness to repeat himself so as to ensure getting an accurate record of the deposition.

It was a loooong deposition…

When it was finally over, counsel for the witness complimented me on my handling of the deposition. Naturally, however, opposing counsel berated me for obstructing the flow of his questioning.  There was a second deposition scheduled the following day so I suggested that we should use a setup that worked for all involved.

I can’t tell you what happened the next day because I wasn’t there. I make it a point to treat everyone in my depositions with courtesy and respect – and I ask only to receive the same. Disrespect and rudeness to participants do not create a positive working environment and it seemed as though my presence would serve only as an irritant to this particular attorney. So, with that in mind, I gave him my last helpful suggestion of the day: I suggested he engage someone else for the next day, and for his subsequent depositions.

Then I treated myself to a donut on the way home. Because a spoonful of sugar helps this Washington D.C. court reporter cope…