Oneida County court reporter sheds light on little-recognized profession

via WJFW News 12, Rhinelander, NY

You probably don't know Lynn Penfield by name.  Unless you've sat before Oneida County Judge Michael Bloom you probably wouldn't recognize her face.  But she shows up on camera and in newspaper photos more often than you might think.  Penfield just tends to hides in plain sight.

Lynn Penfield in Oneida County Court

"I don't think that people really pay any attention to me because I'm not speaking," Penfield laughed.

But while she doesn't talk much, Penfield is always using her ears.

"I just listen, kind of a fly on the wall," Penfield said.

Penfield is one of two court reporters in Oneida County's Branch II courtroom.  As attorneys ask questions and witnesses testify the words flow through her ears, out of her fingers, and into a nearly flawless copy of every word said.
"I'm it," Penfield said. "I'm the only record of what happened. People rely on that."

Penfield, who is a Lakeland Union High School graduate, studied court reporting in San Diego nearly 30 years ago. She spent 25 years transcribing depositions before deciding it was time to move back to Wisconsin. She joined the Oneida County courts in 2014, serving half her time working in Branch II and the other half of her time floating to other courts across the ninth district.

More courtrooms have started to use digital recorders in the time since Penfield started reporting.  The National Court Reporting Association notes Alaska, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon, and Utah all have high levels of digital recording.  Penfield says circuit courts in San Diego got rid of all reporters, making it a requirement to hire a private reporter if you want one.  But to Penfield, there's no replacing a human behind her stenographer machine.

"If somebody coughs or rustles a paper you lose part of the record," Penfield said of electronic recorders. "I don't see live court reporters going away any time in the future."

For Oneida County Judge Michael Bloom, having someone as talented as Penfield isn't an option, it's a requirement for a well run courtroom.

"It really is an awesome task that they perform," Bloom said. "A court reporter can indicate, 'We need to talk one at a time. Someone needs to be quiet over there.'"

Bloom has worked with a handful of court reporters in his four years as judge. He says they often become someone to bounce ideas off of behind the scenes and a right-hand man on the bench.

"I can't say as I know how they do it," Bloom said of court reporters. "I don't understand how the stenographer's machine works, but I do know that each of the court reporters that I've had first-hand experience with they develop their skill not unlike how a person learns to juggle."

"My husband will tell you I don't listen at all," Penfield said with a smile. "However, when I'm in court and I'm writing on the machine, I'm actually thinking of how to write those words in machine shorthand to then translate to my computer."

Those are skills Barbi Galarno helps people learn every day.

"This is the kind of profession that people just don't know about, don't understand," Galarno said.

Galarno spent 20 years as a court reporter in New Orleans and the Upper Peninsula before she started teaching court reporting at Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, Wisconsin nearly 15 years ago.

"Anybody can do it, but you do need to make that commitment and put in the time in school and then afterwards it's a very rewarding profession," Galarno said.

In Galarno's class, students work on their stenographer machines pretty much from day one.

"It's more like learning how to play an instrument, basically," fourth-year student Chad Hirsch said.

Students learn theory, writing, and vocabulary, while working up to the required 225 words per minute to graduate.

"I can't seem to get past it right now, but that's what keeping me going," fellow student Ashley Shimek said. "That I know I'm going to have an awesome job and it's going to be nice in the future."

Galarno emphasizes how many opportunities there are out there, like a predicted 150 openings in Wisconsin by 2018, according to the National Court Reporting Association. But the demand is much greater than the supply. Galarno's first class was 48 students. This year's is just five.

"Very tough [to see so few students], but really what makes it even tougher is that I have inquiries daily for the need," Galarno said.

There are only two brick and mortar schools that teach court reporting in entire state of Wisconsin; Lakeshore Tech and Madison Area Technical College. Students can telecommute, but Galarno says the only way to graduate is through practice.

"You have to put in the practice, you have to put in the time," Galarno said. "We tell students right off the bat you need to commit three hours a day to practice outside the classroom."

Thousands of hours of practice turning into a rewarding career judges like Michael Bloom believe will always require people like Lynn Penfield.

"All court proceedings require some level of human interaction and there is no substitute for that," Bloom said.

Penfield says aspiring court reporters don't necessarily need great typing skills.  Instead, she thinks successful reporters are well versed in the English language and have great punctuation skills.  Reporters also need to be quick studies, often learning about medical or technological terminology on the fly in a courtroom.

Court reporter classes can last anywhere from three to five years, but ultimately hitting the required words-per-minute rate is the key to getting a job.

"As long as... the court reporters keep up with the technology we're a pretty viable resource," Penfield said.

A resource many might not notice, but for the record is always ready.

Both Penfield and Galarno emphasize students can get into a number of careers through court reporting. Those include closed captioning for television and CART reporting where reporters provide real-time scripting for the deaf and hard of hearing.