The pandemic shutdown put business plans on hold all over the country, but startup founder Lauren Lawrence had a thousand reasons to go ahead with a spring launch–1,052, to be exact. That’s how many customers put their names on the waitlist for her legal tech platform, Stenovate, which went live in May.
“We knew the sooner we launched, the sooner we could start getting feedback,” says Lawrence, a 29-year-old court reporter in Kansas City, Mo.
She’s spent the past two years building Stenovate, an online project management tool for court reporters, also called stenographers, to connect with editors and other transcription support staff. Even with most legal proceedings on hold nationwide, more than 150 users joined the platform.
In a field that’s already a locus of women-owned businesses, Stenovate aims to help more start and succeed on their own terms.
“We don’t have a ton of millennials running into this job, but I think people aren’t seeing this career for what it really is,” Lawrence says. “From the day I started, I was a business owner in a real sense.”
In popular imagination–and Hollywood courtroom dramas–the court reporter is a solitary figure perched at her steno machine near the judge’s bench, quietly typing away throughout a trial. In real life, those positions–known as official court reporters–are in the minority.
“There’s a huge misconception that most court reporters work in court,” Lawrence says, adding that in seven years, she has only spent a few days inside a courtroom.
The majority of stenographers are freelancers, like Lawrence, dispatched by court reporting agencies to law offices and conference rooms to cover depositions. These can range from lawyers conducting witness interviews to parties engaged in arbitration or other complex negotiations.
A Top Field For Women Entrepreneurs
Women have dominated the field for decades. Of the estimated 30,000 certified stenographers in the United States last year, almost 90% identified as female, according to the National Court Reporters Association, a trade group. More than 60% are freelancers and nearly one in four own their own firm making it a top field for women’s entrepreneurship.
That’s where Stenovate comes in. Legal transcription is rarely a one-woman show, Lawrence says. Success depends on collaboration, and when she couldn’t find a system that made collaboration easy, she decided to build one.
Certified stenographers must type with at least 95% accuracy at a minimum of 225 words per minute. But clients expect 100% accuracy in the final transcript.
“If I have an eight-hour deposition, that means I’ll need to spend another eight hours proofreading and editing when I get home, and I’m not making any extra money on that time,” Lawrence says.
So most court reporters outsource that homework to specialized legal editors called scopists, who match the audio recording to the shorthand, and to proofreaders, who scan for spelling and punctuation.
The median annual salary for a court reporter is $60,130, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but salaries can range up to $300,000, depending on your level of motivation and project management skills, says Christine Phipps, president and CEO of Phipps Reporting agency in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“To become a high-producing reporter and make ridiculous amount of money, you need to utilize scopists and proofreaders,” Phipps says. She is also the incoming president of the NCRA. “In Florida, if you’re working five days a week and have five years of experience under your belt, you’ll be making $100,000 or $150,000 a year all day long. There aren’t many jobs like that where you don’t need a college degree.”
She would know. Phipps, 52, started working right out of high school. Instead of college, she opted for a two-your court reporting certification program. Now she runs her own agency with 11 offices in the U.S. and a roster of about 150 court reporters.
Who Would Have Thought I Could Afford To Send My Kids To College?
“I’m a single mom, divorced twice and my husbands didn’t pay any child support, yet I’ve raised three kids and paid for college,” she says. “Who would’ve thought I’d be able to afford that?”
Lawrence also went into a court reporting program straight from high school. When she started working for an agency, she joined professional groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. Soon she was hiring scopists and proofreaders online, connecting via the apps’ messaging functions, then figuring out how to share calendars, audio files and transcripts.
Work became a balancing act to keep track of her own deposition calendar, ongoing project deadlines with her scopists, invoices and payments owed to her and that she owed others. Talking with colleagues, she realized everyone was toggling between PayPal, Venmo, Facebook Messenger, Outlook, Gmail, DepoBook, Google Drive, Excel and different calendar apps.
“We each came up with a system, but no one was on the same system,” she says. “Every time you worked with somebody new, there were all these steps. I felt like an octopus using so many different tools all the time.”
So she started thinking about how to streamline the process. In 2018 she began sketching out business ideas for an all-in-one platform and meeting with software developers. She pitched her idea at Midwest startup competitions, including the Pure Pitch Rally and Digital Sandbox KC, and has so far raised about $450,000.
Stenovate lets stenographers, scopists and proofreaders work in the same files concurrently. It has a calendar tool and a chat function that allows in-project communication. There’s a networking area to post job opportunities and connect with other members. The company is offering a 30-day free trial to those who join until Aug. 1. After that, membership will cost $29/month.
Early Investors See Industry Ripe For Change
“Our focus is on disruption, and the legal industry is ripe for that,” says Karen Fenaroli, of the Kansas City-based Fenaroli Minerva Fund, one of Stenovate’s early investors. “Lauren made a product to sustain entrepreneurs, and it’s helping people create their own court reporting hubs. She owns the marketplace.”
Meghan Minnick, 24, is in her third year as a freelance court reporter in Liberty, Mo., and recently joined Stenovate. Currently she’s working with two scopists and one proofreader. “At the beginning I didn’t really think of myself as a business owner,” she says. “But then I realized that I’m running the show here. I have my own LLC and everything.”
Her old system involved a handful of file-sharing programs, social media apps, calendars and a pen-and-paper deposition notebook. “I usually have five transcripts circling in different phases, and sometimes it got a little hairy trying to keep track of everything,” she says. “If someone isn’t that communicative, you don’t know if things will come in on time.”
Now Minnick can see all her pending jobs and deadlines in the system. She keeps track of her team’s editing progress on each transcript, and can open a chat window to check in. “I hardly use email anymore,” she says.
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