Do you have an interest in legal proceedings, but you aren’t quite sure you want to pursue a career as a lawyer or paralegal? If so, you may want to take a look at the stenographer career path. Learn how to become a stenographer in this detailed career guide.
In This Article:
- What Does a Stenographer Do?
- Where Do Stenographers Work?
- Steps for Becoming a Stenographer
- Essential Skills and Characteristics of Stenographers
What Does a Stenographer Do?
Every case that is taken to court is unique in its own way, but they all share one thing in common: The outcome hinges upon finding the facts. Court reporting, or court stenography, is the practice of creating verbatim transcripts of everything that is said on the record in a courtroom, or in a legal proceeding that takes place outside the courtroom (e.g., legal deposition). The work that court stenographers do is absolutely essential in the U.S. legal system because it holds people accountable for their own words.
A court stenographer does the following tasks:
- Record spoken words using a stenography machine at legal proceedings such as depositions, hearings, trials and other legal procedures that call for verbatim transcripts
- Ask speakers to clarify words that were not clearly audible
- Record speakers’ identities as well as their relevant gestures and actions
- Index and catalog exhibits of evidence used during legal proceedings
- Upon request by the judge or attorneys, read back portions of legal testimony
- Review the transcripts to correct spelling and technical terminology as needed
- Distribute copies of the transcripts to involved parties
Where Do Stenographers Work?
Court stenographers often work directly for local or state governmental agencies. However, many stenographers are self-employed freelancers who work on a contractual basis for various law firms and corporations.
It’s often thought that stenographers work only in courtrooms. Although they certainly do record court proceedings such as hearings and trials, sometimes they may also work in other locations. For example, they may be called upon to travel to various meeting sites where pretrial depositions are to be recorded.
Steps for Becoming a Stenographer
If a career in court reporting sounds like a good choice for you and you’re still in high school, you can get started right now on the process of how to become a stenographer. Talk to your high school guidance counselor about your career aspirations and find out whether you can add a few more classes to help you prepare. Some good classes for aspiring stenographers to take include:
- Computer applications
- Law and government
After high school, the next steps in how to become a stenographer include:
- Earn a relevant bachelor's degree
- Complete a court reporting training program
- Acquire appropriate licensure or certification per your state's requirements
Earn Your Undergraduate Public Policy Degree
Although a bachelor’s degree isn’t a strict universal requirement, earning one can give you a competitive edge in the job marketplace. It will also help you prepare for your career by instilling critical thinking skills, expanding your vocabulary and enhancing your ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
A public policy degree is a good choice because it covers the fundamental principles of government, governmental processes, public policy, public administration and similar topics. You may have the option of attending as an online student, depending on the school you select.
The specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, but in general, you may study any of the following topics:
- Constitutional foundations and governing institutions of the federal government
- The U.S. Constitution, with a look at its history, development, political philosophy and doctrines
- The structures, processes and public policies of state and local governments, including political, social and economic factors
- Theories and practices of federal, state and local public administration
- The development, structures and processes of city governments, with a look at major issues such as housing, law enforcement, taxation, zoning and public health
You should have the opportunity to take a few electives during your time in college. You may wish to take some classes that will support your career goals, such as communications, literature and computer applications. Introductory courses in medical science, medical terminology and law can also be good choices, as court reporters must often deal with complex medical and legal terminology.
Complete a Court Reporting Training Program
After you complete your public policy degree, the next step is to enroll in a court reporting training program or certificate program. You’ll need to choose a program that has been approved by the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA). The NCRA maintains a list of approved programs on their website.1
The lengths and structure of these programs vary. Look for a certificate program, rather than an associate degree program. You may also want to choose a program that builds internships or externships directly into the curriculum, if any are available in your area.
Although there can be slight variations in the curriculum, you can generally expect to study the following topics during your time in court reporting school:
- Fundamentals of computer applications
- Theories and practices in machine shorthand
- Punctuation and grammar
- Medical and legal terminology
- Computer-aided transcription
- The recording of question-and-answer testimony
- Dictation, read-back and transcription of jury charge material
- Judicial procedures for court reporting
Acquire State Licensure
Once you’ve graduated from an NCRA-approved court reporting school, you’ll be ready to apply for state licensure, if applicable. Remember that not all states require court reporters to obtain a license, although many of them do. The requirements for obtaining a license will vary by state.
For example, you may need to provide your transcripts from your court reporting program in order to be eligible to apply for licensure. In some states, you may also need to obtain real-world experience in verbatim reporting, which might be accomplished with a provisional or conditional license. Typically, obtaining a full-fledged state license involves passing an exam.
How To Become a Court Stenographer With a Professional Certification
Some employers may require a certification in addition to a state license. Even if an employer doesn’t require a professional certification, it can help you gain a competitive edge over other job applicants. (Note that a certification is not the same as a certificate.)
A certificate — such as one earned via a court reporting training program — demonstrates that you have completed certain educational requirements. In contrast, a certification demonstrates that you have met industry standards by passing a certification examination, typically administered by a professional organization or board.
In the court reporting field, the most reputable and widely recognized professional organization is the National Court Reporters Association. (You’ll recall that the NCRA also approves court stenography training programs.) The NCRA offers a number of certification options.
To start, you’ll want to pursue the Registered Skilled Reporter (RSR) certification option. The RSR certification is an entry-level certification intended for beginning stenographers who demonstrate the ability to record verbatim transcripts at 200 words per minute (WPM).
You do not need to be a member of the NCRA to take the RSR exam, although you will need to join within 30 days of passing the exam. The exam consists of three skills tests:2
- Literacy at 160 WPM
- Jury charge at 180 WPM
- Question-and-answer testimony at 200 WPM
After earning the RSR, you can work on improving your speed and accuracy, which can enable you to pursue the next level of certification: Registered Professional Reporter (RPR). Alternatively, if you can already meet the WPM requirements, feel free to skip directly to the RPR exam instead of taking the RSR exam first. The RPR exam consists of the following:3
- Literacy at 180 WPM
- Jury charge at 200 WPM
- Question-and-answer testimony at 225 WPM
Once you have a few years of work experience, you may wish to pursue the next level of certification: Registered Merit Reporter (RMR). Earning an RMR certification may open the door to promotion opportunities, such as moving into a supervisory position, although this is not guaranteed.
The RMR certification exam consists of the following components:4
- Literacy at 200 WPM
- Jury charge at 240 WPM
- Question-and-answer testimony at 260 WPM
The NCRA’s highest level of certification for court reporters is the Registered Diplomate Reporter (RDR) designation. Earning this elite certification demonstrates that you have achieved highly advanced stenography skills. Only current RMR stenographers who have been members of the NCRA for at least five continuous years are eligible to sit for the RDR exam.
Unlike the previous skills tests, which measure only typing speed in WPM, the RDR certification exam is a 120-question written knowledge exam that covers the following content areas:5
- Industry practices
- NCRA, professionalism and ethics
- Business practices
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Stenographers
You’ll learn everything you need to work as a court stenographer during your degree coursework and court reporting training program, as well as your on-the-job training (if applicable). However, to excel at your job, it can be helpful to cultivate the following characteristics and skills:
- Concentration and focus: Court reporters must be able to maintain their concentration for long periods of time. If they allow their concentration to lapse during a hearing, parts of the transcript may not be recorded, which can prove disastrous for the court case.
- Attention to detail: It’s essential that court reporters produce verbatim transcripts that are completely free of errors.
- Active listening: Court stenographers must be excellent listeners who pay close attention to every word.
- Language skills: Successful stenographers need a solid command of language, including grammar, punctuation and vocabulary, as well as technical terminology.
- Punctuality: Stenographers are expected to show up on time (or a little early) for all legal proceedings they are scheduled to record. A lack of punctuality is considered unprofessional.
- Confidentiality: Stenographers need a healthy respect for confidentiality, as they must often handle sensitive information.
You can begin working toward your dream career as a court stenographer when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Arts in Government with an Emphasis in State and Local Public Policy degree program, which instills foundational competencies in law, governmental processes and public administration.
1National Court Reporters Association, NCRA-Approved Court Reporting Programs in December 2022
2 National Court Reporters Association, Registered Skilled Reporter (RSR) in December 2022
3 National Court Reporters Association, Registered Professional Reporter (RPR) in December 2022
4 National Court Reporters Association, Registered Merit Reporter (RMR) in December 2022
5 National Court Reporters Association, Registered Diplomate Reporter (RDR) in December 2022
Approved by an instructor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Jan. 25, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.