A “Big-Box” CR Firm and Your Client Walk Into a Bar…..Your Favorite Reporter Ducks….

….guess which of the three doesn’t wake up with a headache in the morning?

I recently had what I call a “big-box” CR firm from out-of-state (meaning, not Iowa or Illinois) contact me to cover what is probably an incredibly lucrative reporting job in my area.  I immediately had a bad feeling, but I agreed to cover it thinking perhaps it was just that these were likely attorneys I don’t know, so it’s outside my comfort zone.  After several e-mails with the scheduler, asking her to give me a date and time — because at first she just said, “Possible job in City, State, can you cover?” which is about as vague a question as you can ask a reporter — the most I was able to torture out of this poor girl, who was likely “just following orders,” was that it was an all-day realtime job, and the date.  She actively dodged my questions about the number of realtime hookups, the location, EVEN THE START TIME.  I STILL DON’T KNOW THE START TIME, FOLKS.  Just “all day.”  My husband pointed out that could mean 24 hours, from 1:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. the following day.  It’s unlikely, but I’ve seen some oddly-scheduled depositions over the last 14 years, so you just never know.

Once I agreed to take this job, I was provided with a link to fill out a questionnaire — name, years of experience, what services I provide, et cetera.  I made it about halfway through, and stopped when they asked for my rates.  Not because I mind providing my rates, but because they hadn’t discussed with me what kind of relationship this was.  As an Iowa CSR, I am required by statute to do production.  But was this a job where I’d do production and billing, then pay them a percentage as a referral fee?  Was I to do production, they’d do billing, then pay me?  And, if it’s the latter, when would they pay me?  Four weeks, six weeks, whenever their client paid them?  So many unanswered questions!

So instead of finishing their form, I clicked on their name, which took me to what I assume was their homepage.  And right, there, in massive letters, was a request for booking parties to complete a form to receive percentage discounts on their depositions based on the booking of future work and/or the number of transcript copies sold during a job.

Obviously, we’re all out to get the most for our money.  I totally get that.  And as service providers, court reporters have to stay somewhat competitive in charging clients to remain in the game.  But the National Court Reporters Association — which is the main governing body of the verbatim record arena in the United States, and represents the U.S. on the international verbatim record front — states specifically in their Code of Professional Ethics (COPE), Provision 8:

A Member Shall:

…8.  Refrain from giving, directly or indirectly, any gift or anything of value to attorneys or their staff, other clients or their staff, or any other persons or entities associated with any litigation, which exceeds $150 in the aggregate per recipient each year. Nothing offered in exchange for future work is permissible, regardless of its value. Pro bono services as defined by the NCRA Guidelines for Professional Practice or by applicable state and local laws, rules and regulations are permissible in any amount.

[Emphasis Added]

NCRA Code of Professional Ethics – Provision 8

See Also: NCRA COPE Advisory Opinion 45

The COPE also states, in Provision 1:

A Member Shall:

  1. Be fair and impartial toward each participant in all aspects of reported proceedings, and always offer to provide comparable services to all parties in a proceeding.

NCRA COPE – Provision 1

If you have to offer comparable services to all parties in a proceeding, incentive programs aren’t your friend.  In fact, in my opinion, it’s entirely the opposite of adhering to COPE Provision 1, because incentives like this are based upon a single client doing certain things, and if the other side fails to do the same, according to the terms of your own program, you cannot provide the same reward(s).

Now, let’s get this out of the way:  I’m not bashing this firm.  I’m not even going to hint at the name of it.  I’m not saying that what they’re offering isn’t entirely ethical in their area.  I don’t know all the details, and I always leave room for the possibility that I’m somehow mistaken.

What I am saying is, the way I interpret MY membership with NCRA — and specifically my registration as an Ethics First Firm/Reporter — and MY interpretation of the provisions and guidelines governing my own membership and registration, I can’t knowingly work with a firm if they’re incentivizing clients in this manner.  It’s basic CYA (cover your ass).

Needless to say, I sent a long message tonight explaining my position and respectfully turning down the job.

So this leads me — and probably you — to the question:  Why wouldn’t you want the best deal you can get for reporting services?  It saves your firm, and ultimately your client, money, and a reporter is a reporter is a reporter, right?

In any other service industry,  I might agree with you.  Maybe.  But the overarching tenet of being the Guardian of the Record is impartiality, and for good reason.  As verbatim reporters, we should be so passionate about the accuracy of the record that we can’t be influenced by how much work a particular attorney does or does not book with us.  We won’t produce a record of poor quality because we aren’t particularly fond of the witness.  We should be so obsessive about providing the most accurate and readable record that it won’t matter if you were a total jackass to us for two days of terrible depos.  The quality of the record you receive, the level of service you are provided, and the completely unbiased relationship each side enjoys with the reporter in any case should be consistent, regardless of how many or how few jobs you book with us,  and regardless of anything else.

I have regular clients, so in no way am I implying that repeat business immediately creates an inappropriate relationship between the hiring party and the reporter.  I’m only saying that choice of reporter should be based solely on an appreciation for said reporters skill level and the exceptional level of service you feel you receive, and not on what kind of deal they’re giving you.  After all, one day you might find yourself sitting across the deposition table from a reporter you’ve never met, but who the opposing party works with on a regular basis.  Likely, you are sitting across from a perfectly ethical reporter who just happens to work with the opposing party often,  but do you want to spend the entire deposition scrutinizing everyone’s body language for any appearance of impropriety?  Wouldn’t it be better to only support firms who adhere to a strict Code of Professional Ethics, thus discouraging these gift-giving practices, so you can rest assured that you’re always receiving ethical and impartial service, which can only be beneficial to all parties involved?

“Guardian of Your Record” isn’t just a cheesy tagline I chose to attract business.  It’s  a phrase which, each time I read it, raises goosebumps on my arms.  It’s absolutely thrilling to be such an integral cog in the judicial system.  I feel honored to be entrusted with the official record, and I take that responsibility incredibly seriously, as all reporters should.  Rather than offering bargain-basement prices in order to attract clients, we should be touting our value.  We should be confident in our worth and able to explain why we are charging reasonable rates based on our exceptional skill level, rather than handing out coupons and prizes to clients who book the most work with us.

If nothing else, as my dad has always told me, “You get what you pay for.”

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