For the record, court reporter finds niche
In less than two years, Charleston businesswoman Teresa Evans has taken a two-person court reporting and captioning firm and grown it into a statewide business employing more than 30 people.
For the last 32 years, Evans has worked as a court reporter - the unique profession that transcribes legal proceedings both in and out of the courtroom.
The profession was a natural fit for the 50-year-old Ripley resident.
"For me it's been like watching a Lifetime movie for 32 years," Evans said. "Being an avid people-watcher, this is like being paid to watch people's stories unfold - sometimes good and sometimes not so good."
While she spent most of her career doing freelance work, Evans now owns Realtime Reporters, located on Capitol Street in downtown Charleston.
In response to the rapid growth of the industry across the state, Evans is preparing to move her offices from the third floor of the 118 Capitol St. building to a newly remodeled building on the 700 block of Lee Street.
Evans attributes the growth to the unique services her firm offers, as well as the growing demand for court reporting nationwide.
Forbes magazine ranks stenographers and court reporters as the sixth-best position not requiring a college degree.
According to Forbes, the average starting salary is $26,000 - which can grow 250 percent as a person works his or her way up in the industry - and demand for these jobs is expected to grow more than 14 percent through 2020.
In addition to in-court work, stenographers also transcribe depositions and other out-of-court proceedings.
Everything on the stenograph - the machine most court reporters use - is phonetic, meaning keys stand for sounds rather than specific letters. And different key combinations stand for different sounds.
Evans said that today's machines can be pre-programmed so that specific words, names and other marks can be plugged in at will.
"It's less of a hand game and more of a head game," Evans said. "It's very similar to playing piano where your brain is telling your hand to do a certain thing."
In addition to basic transcription services, Evans has also focused on offering additional services to set the business apart from other firms.
While many firms offer two-week turnarounds on transcriptions, Evans' firm targets a 7-day turnaround.
"I believe that, along with the fact that we flip over backwards for our clients, is what's driving the business," she said.
The company started with two people two years ago. Now it has a staff of 18 reporters, four videographers, five transcriptionists, five proofreaders and additional office staff.
"We're talking 30-some people who now get their income from Realtime Reporters - that's how far we've grown in a year and a half," Evans said.
The firm has also begun hosting focus groups for legal clients.
Using these focus groups, attorneys can come in, do a dry run of their arguments and see how members of a mock jury might react.
Attorneys can remotely watch the focus group's deliberations and also get feedback on ways to improve their cases.
With the expansion of the firms' services, Evans recently decided to move the office to Lee Street. Contractors are currently working on building renovations at that site.
"We actually designed the whole building around the focus group," Evans said.
There will be three mock deliberation rooms and three watching rooms set up in the building. That's in addition to the regular conference rooms that will be equipped with video conferencing abilities.
To help finance the move, Evans and her staff began offering spelling and punctuation classes to help students and adults improve their writing.
She said she was inspired to host the class after seeing signs in convenience stores that said, "Your (sic) being monitored by cameras."
That wasn't the only case. From signs to social media networks like Facebook, she said the need for language education was apparent.
"This generation thinks spell-check is going to catch everything - well, it's not," she said. "It's not going to save you when you use 'you're' instead of 'your,' or 'there' instead of 'their.' In the end, you'll look like an idiot when you're not an idiot."
The firm offers weekday workshops for $100, or $125 on Saturdays. Half-length evening sessions are $60. Group discounts are also available.
Looking forward, Evans is optimistic for her business and the industry as a whole.
"People talk a lot about us being replaced by digital recorders - I don't see that happening," she said.
She pointed to the recent incident in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas actually spoke up during a court hearing for the first time in years.
"There was laughter in the courtroom, and the digital recorder didn't catch it," Evans said.
She said court reporters are trained to read lips and can discern what people say, which is an advantage over recorders that can be drowned out by ambient room noise.
That's key since the ability to have a word-for-word record of legal proceedings is essential for the court system to function properly.
"I really have no fear that we will be replaced," she said. "If we are, then I fear it will substantially reduce the quality of the record."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-4836.