The two teachers read the courtroom testimony at near-breakneck speed — 240 words per minute. The banter was so quick that they seemed to be stepping on each other's sentences in a rapid-fire exchange that often seemed to mimic the dialogue in a David Mamet play. The students in the class sat near computers with their stenography machines resting snugly on their laps. Some looked down at the keys while trying to keep up; others gazed up at the ceiling with a vacant stare, as if meditating.
At the Center City campus of Orleans Technical Institute, run by the Jewish Employment and Vocational Services, the students who were attempting to keep up with this linguistic sprint are learning to be court reporters, and this was just one of a number of drills they have to withstand in the course of honing their skills. For recent high school graduates or those seeking new career paths, the job opportunities can be plentiful.
"This is not really a field people know about," said Jeanette Rattle, senior communications manager for JEVS. Yet the skill set is in great demand, she added.
While the two-year program confers an associate's degree, she continued, the training given doesn't just apply to the courtroom. Closed-captioning of television shows is also done by court reporters, along with translation services for the hearing-impaired.
For graduates, finding work presents little difficulty, said Rattle, since currently, there happens to be a shortage of court reporters nationwide.
This specialized skill offers high pay and other benefits, like a flexible work schedule and, often, the ability to work from home, especially on closed-caption assignments.
"It's basically a hidden profession," said Julia Rosamond, the school's director. In the high-powered legal field, court reporters are often the unsung heroes of the courtroom, since Rosamond considers their records to be the most critical part of the proceedings. "If you want to know what happened," she said, the transcript is what's left.
In addition to having a lexicon of legal and medical terminology at their fingertips, the students also need to possess manual dexterity — a rare necessity for an educational program.
"It's as intense as law school," affirmed Rosamond, "where you're either studying, thinking about studying or feeling guilty for not studying."
She also noted that most of the people in the program are native speakers of English, since mastery of the written and spoken word is crucial to the job. For those who learned English as a second language, the program can be especially challenging because of the variety of technical terms and the speed with which they are used.
Adina Bernstein, a 2005 graduate of Philadelphia's Torah Academy, became intrigued with court reporting after spending a day shadowing a lawyer during her senior year. Though her day started off as a view of an attorney's career, she ended up talking to the court reporter, she said.
Afterward, she looked into the JEVS program.
The academic part of it pushes English and grammar, she said, while vocabulary increases for students simply because they have to know more words to be successful in courtroom situations.
She still has a year-and-a-half to go in the program, and she hopes to start by freelancing in the field, and then working her way up to being a Communication Access Realtime Translation — or CART writer — and providing translation for the hearing-impaired.
Though the program is intense, participants learn as they go, developing one skill then moving on to another. "It's sort of self-paced," said John Quinto, one of the teachers at Orleans. Students complete specific classes by passing three tests that judge their speed levels. They then move on to the next level.
Some people wind up being in the same class for multiple terms, since that's how long it can take them to pass the tests. However, how long it takes them to do so "doesn't necessarily make them better or worse" court reporters, said Quinto, and isn't necessarily an indication of how they'll perform on the job.
Terry Tumolillo, another teacher in the program, knows the curriculum well because it's where she started out. She began at Orleans in 1991 — and never left.
At the same time, she opened her own court-reporting firm after graduation, and as such, understands the commitment necessary to succeed. For in addition to the relentless drills during class time, students are expected to practice at home as well.
Because a high demand for workers with court-reporting skills exists right now, many of these students could be set — as far as employment is concerned — for years to come, stated Rosamond, adding that "it trains you for a profession that you never have to retire from."