For the Record: Notes From a Scribe, the Power of Saying No

Over the past 23 years, I’ve written hundreds of books of which I was not the author.

Let me explain.

I am a scribe.

In modern vernacular, you might know me as a court reporter or a stenographer.  But really, truth be told, I am a scribe.  And, frankly, I prefer referring to myself as a scribe.  Modern-day scribes, of course, instead of using pen and paper (or papyrus, lol), use computers and specialized software to record all kinds of legal proceedings and otherwise.  But, essentially, we perform the same duties and fulfill the same role as ancient scribes of Egyptian and Greco-Roman renown.

Tools of a modern scribe and the power of saying no
Tools of a modern day scribe.                                                                Photo: Bogomil Mihaylov

To bear witness.

As a scribe, I have learned a little (and sometimes more than a little) about a heck of a lot of things simply because my role is to listen and to record.  And to make sure I record accurately.  Verbatim.

No “fake news” here.

I should also add at this point that I do not work in court.  I am a scribe in deposition settings.  Depositions are Question-and-Answer proceedings that comprise that portion of almost every legal case known as “discovery.”  It’s the fact-finding part of the case that settles at least 95 percent of all civil litigation.  Despite the fact that depositions take place in private offices, and not in court, my role remains as an Officer of the Court.  I swear in the deponents and witnesses that are to be questioned.  I sign a certification page that appears at the end of a transcript attesting to the accuracy of the recorded testimony.

My job is comprised of two major parts:  Recording the testimony (on that little machine you often see in legal dramas on TV and in movies using a keyed shorthand) and scoping the transcript of the testimony.  “Scoping” means preparing the transcript by cleaning up grammar and punctuation and putting it all into a readable booklet or transcript.

All of the above is a necessary preface for what is to follow.

Deposition reporters are essentially paid “by the page.”  We were “gigging” long before Uber drivers.  We know all the pros and cons of “gigging.”  We are paid strictly on production.

And not as employees, but as independent contractors.

In our profession, the status of independent contractor is integral to our role as impartial observers and scribes.  It’s also the reason why predominantly women have been drawn to this profession since the ’70s.  It allows flexibility and control of one’s schedule, appealing characteristics for a work/family/life balance.

But we have paid a price for this status.

In the 22 plus years I have been reporting, pay has remained essentially flat, at least in California.  And in this modern era where computers and algorithms are afforded deity status, our profession – like many others – is in the throes of change.  And for reasons too numerous and complicated to enumerate here, we – stenographic court reporters – are on the verge of extinction in California.

There is currently a critical shortage of stenographic court and deposition reporters.  Court reporting schools are disappearing.  In 2013, there were 17 recognized court reporting schools in California.  By 2017, that number had dropped to 11.  The pass rates on the state certification tests, which have always been very low, are so low now that there are not enough reporters to cover jobs.

State officials in California are now considering other means of making a legal record.

But meanwhile, reporting agencies are begging the reporters that are left to take too many jobs.

And here enters the power of “No.”

I scope and edit my own jobs.  No one works for me.  Therefore, as a worker paid on production, I am keenly aware of not overloading myself with too many assignments at once – a stressful scenario that has burned out many a reporter –  despite the carrots dangled by agencies desperate to cover jobs.

Modern day scribe and the power of saying no
Hours are devoted to editing my work.                                                             Photo: Mari Helin

When I say “no” to job assignments, I’m saying “yes” to my life and to myself.  Ironically, one of the reasons I became a deposition reporter was so that I could have a work/life balance.  I wanted to be of service, fulfill an important role, but I wanted control over my work life.

I wanted the power to say “No.”

I did not cause the problems our industry faces, so no one should ask me to solve them at my expense.

As I believe Einstein is credited to have said, “A problem cannot be solved at the level of consciousness at which it was created.”

So now that my profession has taught me the power of saying “No,” where else in my life have I been empowered to say “No”?

To people who do not see me.  To people and situations that drain me.  To people who want to take without giving in return.

I say “No” to drama.  To onerous obligation.  To pretense.

And what I have discovered in saying “No” consciously is that I am saying “Yes” to who and what matters to me and to my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  I am saying “Yes” to freedom and to joy.

Saying yes to joy and the power of saying no
Consciously saying No often means I’m saying Yes to freedom and to joy. Photo: Noah Silliman

Saying “No” is not always easy.

But nothing worthwhile ever is.

And as I stand on the precipice of change, I surrender to what will be.

And I say, “Yes.”




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