From Courtrooms to Living Rooms: Adjusting to Virtual Depositions

For most of us, the sudden shift to remote work has created significant uncertainty. We’ve had to think outside the box and overcome myriad challenges to accomplish everyday tasks, because in so many situations the usual approach is no longer an option.  

Mary Grace Castleberry and Desirae Jura are court reporters with decades of experience, who suddenly found themselves working from home in a profession which has historically been undertaken solely in courtrooms and law firms. We sat down to find out how they’ve adapted, and what they predict for the legal profession in the months to come. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Desirae, tell us about your experience as a court reporter. How has the transition to remote work been going for you?

Well, it’s going pretty well, under the circumstances. There are adjustments you have to make, of course. I have to be mindful of background noise like my puppies barking, and keep in mind what the camera might see or not see. But on the plus side, I used to allow myself at least 2 hours’ travel time to and from work, because you never know what traffic is going to do. By comparison the commute between my kitchen and my home office is great! 

How about you, Mary Grace?

The first couple of months were frightening because I wasn’t sure I could do this job from home. But six months later, I see no difference, really. We’re using video conferencing to take depositions, so I can still interrupt the attorneys and ask them to spell things if necessary. And we’ve adjusted to using email to send exhibits back and forth instead of carting them down to FedEx. So yeah, now that I’ve gotten used to it, it’s all working out pretty well. 

So what does a typical day in the life of a court reporter look like now? 

Well, as Desirae said, not dealing with the commute is wonderful. Travel used to be a big issue. And I always had to be really thorough in making sure I had everything I needed before I left each deposition, whether it was contact information for all the parties or the spellings of technical terms, because you don’t want to be trying to track people down to get those details after the fact. 

Now I just get on my computer. Usually the attorney sends the exhibits ahead of time, so I’m able to review them and familiarize myself with the case. So when I hear a technical term or a name of a person or a product or whatever, I don’t have to interrupt to ask for spellings. I’m already familiar with most of the terminology I’m going to hear. Really, I just find it’s a lot better in so many ways.

Desirae, what have some of the biggest challenges been?

At first, it was a challenge simply because it was new, and all the different platforms posed a bit of a learning curve. You know, one party prefers Zoom and another prefers WebEx, so we needed to be comfortable with them all. Sometimes I found myself feeling flustered by all the changes, so I started making it a point to join the meeting early and make sure everything was connected and working, just in case there was an issue.

And from the legal perspective, in the very beginning there was some concern about swearing in witnesses remotely, because they’re supposed to be physically present with you. But the States have been really good about adapting. They’ve settled on specific language that we use, almost like a script, so that the testimony is valid even though it’s remote.

How about communication – has it been affected? Mary Grace, what are your thoughts?

Well, as I said, having the attorneys emailing me with the relevant information has definitely been an improvement. I’m already communicating with them well in advance, as opposed to walking into a room and meeting them for the first time. I feel like I have more direct interaction with the attorneys, more of a relationship.

Desirae, do you feel as though the attorneys are learning as well?

I do. In general, they’ve been very helpful – for example, emphasizing that since we’re video conferencing, it’s more important than ever that they speak one at a time. I feel as though the attorneys are adapting to it quite well, and I’ve had very few glitches.

How do you handle and mark exhibits remotely, Mary Grace? 

That was a huge stress for us at first, because we didn’t know how we would do it. Before, we had a paper sticker that we placed on the page, and then we’d hand-write the exhibit number and so on. We talked about having to print all these documents, mark them, and then FedEx them in, which just seems silly now, because we’ve realized we can accomplish the same thing digitally. We just use Adobe Acrobat to put our electronic sticker on there and then email them in. 

You’re both smiling at that. Desirae, it seems like you appreciate the electronic approach, versus commuting for two hours, lugging all those boxes in and out of your car…

Definitely. You have to keep everything in order and make sure that nothing gets lost and that everything gets turned in. Doing it electronically is so much easier.

So suppose you’re taking a deposition, and somebody says the phrase “we’re going off the record.” How do you ensure that’s really happening in a remote environment, Mary Grace?

Well, we quit writing on our machine. You know, we just stop creating the transcript. But as far as it being visible – I don’t do this, but I’ve heard of other reporters who have the camera pointed down on their hands so that the attorneys can see that they’re not typing.

Interesting. Desirae, do you think we’re looking at a permanent change in how the work is done?

I do. I think we’re in this for the long haul. COVID doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, so I expect to be doing things this way at least for the foreseeable future.

But it doesn’t sound like you want to go back. 

No, I really don’t. And I’ve heard attorneys say that too. I can’t tell you how many times they’ve said, well, this is my first time doing a remote deposition. Let’s just see how this goes. And then at the end they say, wow, it’s really nice. 

What I’m hearing from the people I work with is that this is life changing. And you know, I think it has been for all of us. We’ve been forced to rethink things. When COVID first hit, I really struggled to imagine how remote court reporting would work. I wasn’t sure it could be done. But I’ve discovered that in some ways, I can actually do it even better.