Man vs. Machine: Will One Become Obsolete In Law?

It’s no wonder lawyers fear technology—computers seem to be replacing legal jobs slowly but surely.

Take, for example, the case of court reporting.

The court stenographer, once a pillar of the litigation community, has been substituted with digital recording devises in many courtrooms, including New Jersey.

Budget cuts are largely to blame. The salary for court reporters range from $50,000 to $60,000 per year in the state. But, high-tech digital recording systems are a mere $15,000 to $18,000 to install per courtroom.

Proponents of the change in New Jersey claim digital technology keeps pace with the proceedings and are highly reliable.

Others, however, remain skeptical.

“It’s a transition from accurate records to adequate records,” said Bob Tate, president of the Certified Court Reporters Association of New Jersey, to Kibret Markos of The Record.

Can technology truly replace the nuanced practice of court reporting that has been honed these many long years?

“Of concern are the uniquely human aspects now absent. For instance, court reporters often interrupt proceedings to get every word uttered by someone in a low tone or if more than one person is speaking at once. Recording equipment cannot do that, which explains the ‘inaudible’ entries that often punctuate court transcripts from digital recordings,” explains Kibret Markos of The Record, New Jersey.

In fact, Tate cited a 2003 criminal case in federal court in Trenton in which the audio system left more than 10,000 inaudible and indiscernible entries, such as testimony by key witnesses. The trial court then was forced to go through the transcript of the eight-month trial—with both parties present—to rectify indiscernible entries.

Notwithstanding this example, it’s hard to deny the effect on court transcriptions of human error, however. The number of times a court reported hears one word, but writes another.

Both recording systems and court reporters alike have a plethora of back-up systems in place to ensure its accuracy.

“No system is perfect,” said Judge Peter Doyne, assignment judge for Bergen County, to Markos.

“But from a technological point of view, we are trying to take advantage of the opportunities that [recording equipment] offers.”

Given unlimited funds, most people can agree that the combination of technology and organic human interaction would benefit court transcription.

No single system—on its own—is perfect, which is why this story serves as a reminder to lawyers who have grown accustomed to using technology in the workplace day-to-day.

E-mail, faxing, digital recordings, e-discovery, and e-filing are just a few of the many ways technology has become indispensible to the legal profession.

In fact, Microsoft Excel has become a major tool in mapping discovery and difficult litigation timelines.

Nevertheless, technology (at least, for now) has not totally replaced lawyers. So it’s important to still second-guess and second-check your technology resources.

When you send a fax, obtain and confirm receipt.

When submitting a time-sensitive document online, don’t wait for the last minute to file—you never know when computer software will act up.

In proofreading, even the spell-check feature can make mistakes.

While it may be intimidating to watch technology out-smart and out-wit—in many instances—its human counterparts, don’t forget to continue to exercise the one tool of humankind that can not (yet) be replaced by machines: the discerning and creative mind.

-WB

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1 Comment

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One response to “Man vs. Machine: Will One Become Obsolete In Law?

  1. What the president of any court reporting association won’t tell you is that instead of them putting an (inaudible) where a court reporter can’t hear something, she’ll most likely try to fix it with punctuation instead.

    You’re right when you say that no system is perfect, but lets not forget, these audio recordings still need to be transcribed, and it’s not by the state. If an attorney that believes that a stenographic court reporter will do a better job than a digital court reporter, he’s more than welcome to ante up and pay the extra dough.

    Being a digital court reporter myself, and owning a digital court reporting firm, I KNOW the quality that we can provide. The problem comes when a state or other government takes the budget to a whole new level and installs sub-par equipment. In that instance, it doesn’t matter if you’re typing it on a QWERTY keyboard or a steno machine. It’s the audio quality that dictates the accuracy of a transcript in my realm.

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