Legally Speaking: Melissa Clagg

Legally Speaking: Melissa Clagg

If the idea of writing down interesting details of court hearings at a starting salary of about $40,000 a year — without the need for four years of college — appeals to you, then MELISSA CLAGG would love to hear from you.

The supervisor for Champaign County's court reporters, Clagg is on a mission to drum up help for the dwindling ranks of the profession she's been in for more than 30 years.

Court reporters are obligated to take down every word spoken in the courtroom to create the official record of the proceedings.

The course work to become a court reporter takes one to two years. Then, the reporter needs to practice enough to be able to pass a state exam of recording 225 words per minute.

Here's a sampling of MARY SCHENK's interview with Clagg.

How do the words get from the steno machine you type on to the printed record?

"We now type on an SD card that is in that machine, our writers. Every keystroke we make is being recorded on that SD card. We can insert it into our laptops, and we have special court-reporting software to read it.

"Each reporter has their own dictionary telling the software how to translate that steno stroke into English, and it automatically comes up in written form. This is also how closed captioning works. If you see closed captioning on the TV, that's a court reporter that does that. They actually do it from their home, but it's the same concept. It goes from steno to English."

Describe the education needed to be a court reporter and the potential starting income.

"Court reporting is like a trade school. I went to Sparks College in Shelbyville. It's no longer there. It was a go-at-your-own-pace course, so as soon as you passed a speed time, you advanced to the next level. We are getting a program started at Lake Land College (in Mattoon). I'm on a committee to get that going because we desperately need court reporters.

"We have two forms of income. We have the salary. We go there every day, show up, take down the court proceedings. Our second income is transcript-based income. Anything we are requested to type up, we get paid by the page. A starting salary alone with no experience in court reporting can start at $40,000. (Add in) your transcript income, starting out, somebody can make $50,000 walking in the door."

Do you comprehend what you hear?

"We definitely become a robot. We are basically a machine. We try to hear the words spoken, and that goes through a process of telling ourselves how to write it, and it goes to our fingers. It becomes very difficult if you have an expert witness or terminology you're not typically used to hearing every day.

"If somebody speaks very, very fast, we are concentrating. If you see us zoned out, we're probably focusing on one spot, either on the carpet or the wall. And we're just thinking and putting it to the paper."

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