on the cheap and sleazy side (www.cheapandsleazy.net)
Fomenting Change in the Court Reporting Industry
Meet Mary Ann Payonk.
Mary Ann Payonk, CRR, RDR, is an advocate.
She is an advocate for reporters being given what they're worth.
She is an advocate for court reporting students not getting seduced by the dark side of the industry -- those firms that send the new reporter out on jobs that are way, way beyond their skill level, charge the client astronomical amounts, and pay the new reporter a mere pittance of what they actually bill.
Yes, Mary Ann is an advocate. She is an advocate for you, for me, and all court reporters ... and in this article, she will tell you things you've probably never considered -- but should have.
In the past few years, I've watched reporting devolve into something that I'm not happy to be a part of. Cheap rates in exchange for volume sales. Reporters, the backbone of every firm, fighting a losing battle every day for decent rates. Realtime offered at ridiculously low rates or, even worse, simply given away as incentive to attract business. I can't just sit back and watch as my profession gets pounded into the ground by those who've lost sight of the fact that ours is a skill-based specialty provided by highly trained, talented reporters.
Many reporters are afraid to put their jobs in jeopardy by speaking out against what they feel are injustices in the reporting world. But I'm not afraid. And I won't go out without a fight.
NCRA has told us for years that there's a severe reporter shortage. And that could be. But the law of supply and demand tells me that there is no shortage if reporters can be mistreated and rates don't increase to keep up with inflation. If ever there was a time for reporters to grow a backbone and stand UP for themselves, it's NOW.
I'm a worker bee. I know I can't change the world. But I can change MY world. And when I change my world, even just a little, and do it for the right reasons, I will change the world -- the reporting world -- for others who come after me.
So in my world, I can just say "no" to ridiculously low rates ... and I do. In my world, I would rather stay home than work for pennies ... and I do. In my world, I can charge for my services at rates that reflect my worth ... and I do. And in my world, I can refuse to be disrespected by reporting firms who engage in unethical business behavior and deceptive billing practices ... and I have.
The biggest problem facing reporters today is not the threat of alternative methods such as electronic recording or voice recognition. The biggest problem facing reporters today is the growing number of reporting firms trading cheap rates for high volume, a trend that has caught on and spread like wildfire, turning our once-respected profession into an assembly line transcript production industry.
If commoditization is the biggest problem facing career reporters today, our own complacency is second. To command the money and respect we want, we've got to make ourselves more valuable. When black ink on white paper is pretty much the same across the board, it's the reporter that can make a difference. So I say to reporters, it's time to stand up and BE professionals. Regardless of where the marketplace drives our financial worth in the future, we need to continue to raise the bar, improve our skills, EDUCATE our clients, and increase awareness of what we do for them.
Any day of the week, reporting firms are negotiating low-cost deals in return for volume work. And those firms will tell you -- and they really believe it! -- that they are working for the good of the profession.
Firms that make low-ball deals may believe they're working for the good of the profession ... but they're not working for the good of MY profession. They're working for the good of their own pocketbooks at my expense.
At YOUR expense.
They look to high volume to "make up" for cheap rates, and they encourage reporters, even those with highly specialized realtime skills, to do the same. "Yes, our rates are low, but we have a LOT of work and you can make up for it by taking more jobs." Just do work more for less pay.
This is insane! This must stop.
As any good marketer will tell you, all that matters is perception -- what the CLIENT thinks of us. When firms are quick to give our valuable services away for free, or drop their rates in an instant, all that tells our clients is that we don't think very much of what we do, and our clients lose respect for us.
Every day, law firms get bombarded with cookies, fruit baskets, gift certificates and bottles of champagne in return for their business, many by members of the NCRA and in violation of gift giving guidelines. But the problem is, is that what PROFESSIONALS do? Let's not forget about the message we're sending to our clients.
Let's look at the true intent of those who claim they are working for the good of the reporting profession.
Now, some reporting firms will say, "Shame on you greedy reporters." They think that we're demanding and unreasonable. But I say to those firms, "Shame on YOU. Shame on YOU for selling us out. Shame on YOU for not valuing what we do enough to charge appropriately for it. And shame on YOU for using fear and intimidation to hold us back."
Fear is one of the most powerful weapons someone can use to hold you down.
Fear of a vindictive firm owner.
Fear of no pages.
Fear of being blackballed.
Fear of being labeled a prima donna simply for standing up for yourself.
Sadly, many reporting firms don't respect their reporters. They treat them unfairly, holding them hostage with threats, fear and intimidation.
My message to reporters is NOT to gouge prices or charge exorbitant rates. If there really IS a reporter shortage, this is NOT the time to take advantage of that ... but it IS the time to stand up for yourself and demand to be treated with respect -- and that includes being paid appropriate rates.
Sometimes, things like respect and appreciation that aren't included in a far-reaching corporate plan are the very foundation that a smaller firm will use to attract and retain high-quality reporters.
So what happens when you decide to push back? When you decide you will no longer be disrespected, reporting firms may tell you you won't be able to find other work ... but you will.
When you decide you will no longer work for pennies, firms may tell you that no one pays rates like theirs. But when you take the time to inform yourself, to learn all your options, you may just find that no one pays rates like theirs -- because theirs are the lowest in town.
When firms promise tons of work, I urge you to look further ahead than the pages you'll write tomorrow. Is working yourself to death for low rates right for YOU??
When you push back, you may come up against a firm owner who says, "My dear, I simply can't be flexible." But reporting firms CAN be flexible. If they want to attract quality reporters, they MUST be flexible. It's getting crowded at the bottom, but let me assure you that there are many good, quality-minded, ethical firm owners out there who have carved out a higher-end niche for themselves, and they're always looking for good reporters.
Be proactive in marketing yourself. Do you have a website?? If not, GET ONE! And don't confine your efforts to what you consider your local market. When reporting firms need coverage in your area, unless they're locked into a co-marketing agreement with another agency, they would much rather work with an independent than with another big firm. And how will they find you if you don't have a website?
If you're currently working with just one firm and you're happy there, wonderful! Really. STAY there. You should be grateful that you're respected, appreciated and paid well for what you do. But I say, power to the independents! We are a powerful force in the marketplace. And people -- stand UP for yourselves! Whether you're on your own or with a firm, you have an absolute duty to know what's going on around you so you can make INFORMED decisions.
And why do I care what you do? Because your actions affect my future. The actions of the reporter who took the job you turned down today affect someone else's future. And the decisions of that "someone else" will come back to affect you, me and other reporters.
I read a very powerful book this year called The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, who tells us that a tipping point is that "magic moment" when an idea or trend crosses a threshold ... tips ... and spreads like wildfire. Just like a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, a "small, but targeted push" causes trends. And a trend is the beginning of a change.
In short, little changes can have big effects.
When I met my partner, Richard, he looked at what I was doing with a fresh set of eyes. I call Richard my Business Growth Consultant. Because of Richard's "push," now I work smarter, not harder. I concentrate my work within my specialty. And I have learned how to just say "no" to firms who don't have my best interests at heart.
In the book, Polishing the Pearl, Al Betz talks about what he calls "silent marketing." Al's years of knowledge and experience tell us something that would save lots of firms a big headache if they just realized it: A clever marketing campaign doesn't mean much when the real difference between one professional and the other is not what we think about ourselves ... it's what OUR CLIENTS think of us. Those cookies, gift baskets and free lunches may get you a seat at the consideration table, but it's performance, professionalism and delivering as promised by the reporter that's critical to building a firm's good reputation.
It's All About the Realtime
And I've saved realtime for last.
Realtime is a specialty. It's been said that realtime is our last, best hope to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace.
But if that's so, how can firms push realtime as the ultimate litigation tool, then want to pay reporters pennies to provide this "valuable" service?
Give an apprentice and a master reporter ten days to prepare a transcript, and the end product will be about the same. But realtime is different. Realtime is right NOW.
In a world of reporting firms wanting to be all things to all people, REALTIME separates the men from the boys. There are no do-overs in realtime. It takes a highly skilled reporter to write it right the first time. So why in many markets is realtime simply given away as incentive to attract business? Why don't these firm owners get it?
Reporters have been told for years that realtime would "save the profession from electronic recording." So it would seem from the beginning, realtime was envisioned as a safeguard of reporting. Our saving grace. So then why is realtime so often disrespected? Why do firms provide realtime for free?? And why in the world do excellent realtime reporters work for peanuts?
If you are a realtime writer providing the highest quality realtime, don't sell yourself short! You have the ability to provide what few reporters can. You do NOT have to play the volume game. Trading cheap rates for high volume is what got us off track to begin with. If you are an excellent realtime writer, you should be sorting your job offers, not chasing pages. When you look further than the pages you'll write tomorrow, often you'll find better offers waiting from firm owners who respect the profession and what you bring to it.
And if you're a great reporter giving your time and talents to a firm anxious to trade cheap rates for high volume, you must ask yourself: "Am I part of the problem?"
Look at your world. Is this where you thought you'd be at this point in your career? Do you feel you're treated as a respected professional, like you were told in reporting school? Are you thrilled to get up in the morning, grab your equipment and head out the door to another great reporting adventure? Or have things not turned out quite like you expected they would?
I believe a revolution is coming, and it's going to be led by some very strong-minded individuals.
The independent reporter is a powerful force in the reporting community. We have power over many things.
We have the power to decide which jobs we'll take ... and which we'll pass by. We have the power to decide whether to work for a firm ... or not. And we have the power to decide how low we're willing to drop our rates for the services we provide.
It's all about choices. Every time the phone rings, you have a choice. Knowledge IS power. I encourage you to arm yourselves with knowledge, then make INFORMED choices, looking further ahead than tomorrow's assignment.
I believe career reporters WANT to work hard. Career reporters WANT to bend over backwards for their clients. Career reporters WANT to continually improve themselves. We want to be the BEST we can be. But we want fair rates ... and fair treatment.
For many years now we've looked to NCRA to support us and stand up for reporters' rights. Over the years, we've put our trust in reporting firms to make choices that benefit the entire profession. But now it's up to US.
By your actions, you don't have to change the WHOLE world ... but I encourage you to change YOUR world! Realize the power of one. And then two. And then four reporters who will just say "no" to lowering the bar. "No" to being sold for the lowest bid. "No" to allowing those dangerous trends to pass the tipping point and spread like wildfire. "No" to being disrespected.
The rest of the reporting world has had their chance.? It's time for reporters ... you and me ... to TAKE BACK OUR PROFESSION. And we CAN do it.? YOU can do it. Because you ARE worth more.
If you have any comments, questions, or just wish to say "Amen!!", you can reach Mary Ann at realrealtime (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thanks, Mary Ann!