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Mask court reporters breaking ground in Mississippi with voice recognition software

Technology integration boosting courtroom efficiency

Kelly Stephens of Gulfport got a college degree in psychology, but then took a detour into owning her own business. After moving to Mississippi eight years ago, she opened a nail and tanning salon in the Orange Grove area of Gulfport off U.S. 49.

“It was an excellent business,” Stephens said. “It did very good, and I enjoyed owning my own business. But after so many years of doing nails, my hands started aching all the time and my sinuses were very bad. Sometimes I couldn’t open and shut my hands from doing nails all day long.”

Stephens was interested in court reporting, but suspected she would have difficulty using the stenograph because her hands ached all the time. After researching the issue, she learned that court reporters were using voice recognition software instead of stenograph machines to get the same results.

A mask court reporter speaks into a mask and either makes a recording on a cassette tape to transcribe later, or uses voice recognition software that is automatically transcribed as she speaks. Stephens went on a job with a Louisiana mask court reporter and decided that was the career path for her. She then attended the Margaret Lawson Court Reporting School in Natchez (www.thecourtereportingschool.com) to take a course from a certified mask instructor.

“It’s just a different method of doing court reporting,” said Stephens.

Although about half of the court reporters in Louisiana are mask reporters using voice recognition software, it hasn’t been widely accepted in Mississippi yet. There are only a handful of mask reporters who practice in Mississippi.

In theory it takes about six months to take the state certification test and get prepared to work.

“But realistically, to work in this field, it takes nine to 12 months to train your computer and build up your speed to be able to talk that fast,” she said. “I can talk about 320 words per minute. When I got out of school, I wanted to know my Audioscribe system as thoroughly as possible. Audioscribe set me up with a layout for everything I needed to begin working.”

Then, a big disappointment. Because the mask system wasn’t well known in Mississippi, and some attorneys and court reporters are resistant to change, Stephens was unable to find a job anywhere in Mississippi. Then a friend introduced her to Michele Keenlance and Susan Bailey, who are partners in Bailey, Keenlance & Associates, a freelance court reporting service based in Gulfport. Stephens met the women for lunch, bringing her computer to make a demonstration.

“I wanted them to see for themselves how it works,” Stephens said. “I assured them it was the same results, just a little different way of going about it. I said I could sit side by side with them and perform the same job. I just asked them to give me a chance. They did, and I have never, ever had a problem. Bailey, Keenlance & Associates eased me into it by sending me on short simple jobs. Now there is no shortage of work for me.”

Stephens doesn’t repeat verbatim everything that is said. She uses voice shorthand so she only has to repeat about 60% of what is said. For example, for “State your name for the record please,” an often repeated phrase in courtrooms, Stephens says, “state, state” and the computer types out the entire phase. For, “What is your driver’s license number?,” she says “dl,dl.”

She stresses the importance of training the computer. Not only does it have to recognize how you pronounce a word, but the type of court reporting done will have a big impact on the vocabulary used. A deposition at a shipyard will use far different terminology than a deposition for a medical case.

“You have to figure out exactly what you are going to do in the court reporting field and have a bird’s eye view of what is going on,” Stephens said. “You can’t really train the computer until you know what you are going to be faced with.”

Now her computer has been trained thoroughly and as she speaks into her mask, the written transcript comes up as text on the screen. Also, her computer has an external microphone that records the sound in the room. The computer stores what she says as one file, and the voice recording of the proceedings in another file.

“This software is so high tech and so new, when I get home and open up that job, I control the audio with a foot pedal, and am able to switch back and forth between the room track and my track,” Stephens said. “I’m also able to burn the audio from the room onto a CD, and if attorneys are on a business trip and don’t have time to read the transcript, they can listen to this audio. So that is another advantage.”

When doing a transcript of a meeting, many different people may speak. Stephens keeps track of them by assigning a number to each speaker. In that way, she can handle up to 100 speakers at a time. Once you train your voice files, accuracy can get up to 95%. But training the computer is never done. If a phrase or word not in the dictionary or voice files is used, something else will come up on the screen.

“So, it is a constant training for your computer,” Stephens said. “You are constantly updating the computer because words come up in every job that your computer does not know — business, legal or medical words.”

Even after being hired by Bailey, Keenlance & Associates, Stephens wasn’t sure how she would be received by customers. But she said about 80% of attorneys are totally comfortable with her method of reporting while a handful of attorneys just flat out don’t like it because it is different.

You could sit right next to Stephens at a meeting and not hear her speaking into the mask. She talks between a whisper and a regular tone. Stephens has found the court reporting work all she had hoped.

“It has opened my eyes a lot,” she said. “I have learned so much every day. There is no way to get bored with the job because every day is different. You might have bankruptcy court one day, a child custody case the next day and then the following day you could be doing a workers’ comp deposition.

“A lot of times when I’m at my job doing a deposition, one of the attorneys will sit by me,” Stephens said. “They will lean over and read what is coming up on my computer screen because they find it very interesting. People often tell me that they bought voice recognition software, but it didn’t work. The main thing is training your computer and working with your audio files. It is a constant upgrade because the vocabulary is so large. If you don’t update and train your computer constantly, you will spend all of your time retyping the work.”

Stephens recommends Dragon Naturally Speaking is the best software on the market. Many hospitals in the state have purchased Dragon Naturally Speaking for physicians but the doctors don’t have a very good success rate with it because they are too busy to work with the software. Doctors have told Stephens they are amazed at how good her voice recognition is.

The equipment used by mask reporters is not cheap. The software alone runs $5,000, and then you need special computers with enhanced capabilities such as larger hard drive storage and faster processors. The computer and software cost between $10,000 to $15,000. Stephens has met a lot of court reporters who have made the investment and then don’t use it because of the time and training involved.

“I have met so many women who are not using their computer for voice recognition because they don’t understand it, can’t figure it out and they basically give up,” Stephens said. “It is sort of complicated. But it is all in the training. It does take technological savvy.”

Out of the 19 students who began the mask course Stephens did, she was one of only two to finish. And she is the only one from that class actually working as a mask reporter, she said.

She has been doing the mask reporting work for a year now and says her bosses now wish they had hired her when she first sent them a résumé two years ago.

“Everyone affiliated with it is very open minded about this method now,” she said.

On her weekends off work, Stephens is also breaking new ground in another area: she is one of the few female drag racers around. Her husband, Richard Stephens, builds racecars, and Stephens drives one of their $35,000 dragsters. She has the track record in Mobile, Ala., for being the fastest female driver at the track.

“I hated racing before I met my husband,” she said. “But I wasn’t one to sit in a trailer at the race track talking about shopping with the other women. My husband started letting me drive his extra car. It took me six months before I got comfortable to race other cars. I won my first race. We usually go racing three to five times a month, and hopefully next year will go to major events with $10,000 and $25,000 purses.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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