'Secret language': Freelance court reporter enjoys role as independent contractor

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

 A freelance certified court reporter working for Hanson Renaissance Court Reporting and Video in Detroit, Caitlyn Hartley loves to type in a “secret language” that only she or fellow court reporters can read. 

“On our screens it can translate into English, but if we closed that and only showed what we were typing, it would be gibberish to anyone else,” she says. “Also it's a skill-based profession, unlike all those academic tests you could pass but that don't determine how good you are in your actual career. A skill-based profession, you can’t fake it or study hard and pass and then forget everything. You have to type a minimum of 225 WPM at 95 percent accuracy. Not everyone can do that. 

“It's very rewarding as well and you get to meet many amazing reporters from different areas of the profession.”

Hartley previously worked as a clerk in a law office; after several years she became a secretary, and then a paralegal for a total of 7 years in a medical malpractice/personal injury firm and one year as a paralegal doing PIP/provider work.   

“I had lots of legal knowledge and background so court reporting was an easy transition for me,” she says. 

Her mother, a judicial attorney, was the person who suggested the niche career of court reporter.

“I didn't even know what that was,” Hartley says. “At the time I’d been working in a law firm and knew I didn't want to go to law school, but wasn't sure what I wanted to do. My mom knew I loved typing. I could type extremely fast on a normal keyboard—about 110 at my fastest—and was top of my computer and typing classes throughout high school and college.”

Attending the Academy of Court Reporting in Clawson, she graduated top of her class, testing out of two levels and graduating in two years instead of three. She learned to type on steno machines, specialized machines where reporters type in the steno or brief language—and AI advanced software translates into English on the screens—and speed build to type a minimum of 225 words per minute. She now uses a Luminex machine, by Stenograph LLC.

Hartley has seen technology change in her 6-year career, especially working virtually due to the pandemic.

“I was fortunate enough in my schooling to be the first all-electronic class—I saw reporters before me still with machines that printed out on paper,” she says. “So thankfully, I was already prepared to type on an electronic machine, which is what we still use today. The machines that come out every few years become lighter and have more AI capabilities to help you be more efficient but mostly it's similar to the machine I learned on in school.”

As an independent contractor she enjoys creating her own schedule, and since the work is in high demand, has no fear of being laid off. 

“They’ve tried to replace us with recording devices and Dragon technology but they see how flawed it is,” she says. “Court reporters have to be able to distinguish multiple male and female voices, sometimes talking over each other, which artificial intelligence still can't do, as well as understanding thick accents.” 

Serving her first year as a board member of the Michigan Association of Professional Court Reporters (MAPCR), Hartley is in charge of social media and advertising, conventions, and sponsorships. 

“It's been really fun being involved,” she says. “I've attended MAPCR’s conventions since I was a student and I loved learning about various aspects of court reporting and networking with other reporters. I’m very happy that I get to assist them with preparing conventions and trying to get the word out because this is an amazing and high demand profession many don’t know about. Also, by serving on the board, I get to make a positive difference in the court reporting world and I want to be able to help in any way I can.” 

Courts use a court recorder—a certificate requiring one class and a test to get certified—who logs attorney and party names, and records the proceedings, on and off the record when indicated by the judge. 

“However, if an attorney wants a transcript of court proceedings, the court has to reach out to freelancers like myself to type it up because court recorders are not certified to type transcripts,” Hartley explains. “That takes extra certification, a CSR, which is also what I am. I’m also a RPR—a Realtime Professional Reporter—meaning I'm certified nationally to type on the specialized Realtime machines at minimum 225 WPM.” 

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, a lot of trials were pushed back and adjourned, and attorneys did not do many depositions. 

“We started working remotely for the safety of everyone and I’ve continued to work remotely,” Hartley says. “Some depositions have gone back to being in person, but it's at the discretion of the attorney and/or court. Most courts have maintained that all hearings and pre-trial matters stay virtual while trials can be in person with precautions. I personally prefer working remote because before I'd have to drive all over metro Detroit for jobs and when you're assigned multiple jobs in a day having to drive from one to another, not ever being certain how long a witness or attorney may take, was sometimes difficult. It's much easier for me to be assigned multiple jobs and be able to take them all.” 

As the court reporter on one of former President Trump's motions, Hartley found herself featured on TV news clips. 

“That’s public knowledge so I can say that when Trump's attorney was trying to argue about the ballots and how they should be recounted and everything, the judge basically said, ‘So you want them to be picked up and dropped off like a drug deal? Okay.’ It was hard to stay neutral-faced at that moment, but as a reporter you have to, especially if you're on TV and/or in the public eye.” 

Hartley—who admits to being ‘directionally challenged’ and heavily reliant on GPS—looks at Google satellite images of buildings, to help her recognize and find them. In one of her early jobs, Google maps indicated the location was a foreclosed home. 

She figured perhaps Google didn’t have the image or didn’t understand the address. Arriving early, she found herself in front of a dilapidated house with boarded up windows. Too scared to approach, she waited for an attorney to show up, who knocked on a board where a door window should be. 

When a man let them in, Hartley and the attorney followed him through a lot of clutter to the kitchen, where Hartley—with her large rolling briefcase containing her machine, computer, cords, and recording devices—sat at a simple table with a bench, and the attorney sat on a log bench.

Hearing loud wheezing, she turned out to see four cages of pit bulls, that seemed to be suffering from the man’s second-hand smoke and smoke-filled room.

“The poor dogs are asleep or resting and wheezing. But you can imagine how terrifying it seems,” she says. “The funniest thing is the man and woman—witnesses to a car accident—were the nicest people I’d ever met and the pit bulls, while having a scary reputation, were very well behaved and silent, besides wheezing the whole time. What I thought was going to be the scariest deposition of my life turned out to be fine, but looking back on it, it was a very unusual situation, one that has not happened again.”

Hartley comes from a legal and medical family. Her sister is a supervisor in the Washtenaw County probate department. Her mother worked in hematology at Yale University before attending law school and becoming a judicial attorney. Hartley’s father earned a dual biology and chemistry from Yale, doing cancer research there before teaching graduate students in pharmacology at the University of Michigan and continuing cancer research for U-M. 

“My dad helped invent the chemotherapy pill that people now can take at home,” she says. “He was exceptionally brilliant so I'm sure if he had not passed away when I was 14—from illnesses due to being exposed to Agent Orange where he was a medic and scientist in Vietnam through the Navy—I'm sure he would have found a cure.” 

Extremely creative in her leisure time, Hartley created a board game that friends have played; loves console and board games; and she and her husband often host game nights for friends.

In addition, Hartley is an artist, sketching with pencil and did her first digital art through Procreate for her mom as a painting for last Christmas. She also earned a Taekwondo green belt, and was working toward her blue belt before the pandemic put the kibosh on things. 

An Ann Arbor native—where she still makes her home with her husband and three cats—Hartley is a Huron High School alumna, and graduated from the University of Michigan with an undergrad degree in English with a sub-concentration in creative writing. She is the author of several sci-fi and fantasy romance books, independently published through Amazon. Her first book series was The S.K.I.E. Series and the first book in her recently released fantasy romance series is “The World of Ilunae.”

“I've been writing stories since I was 7 and still have all stories from childhood,” she says. “ 

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