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How to Become a Legal Transcriptionist

Up and coming professionals with an interest in the legal system, an eye for detail, impressive typing skills, and a solid grasp of the English language are well positioned to become tomorrow’s legal transcriptionists.

Legal transcriptionists create official written records of oral court proceedings, a vital component of the U.S. legal system. Legal transcriptionists are experts at the process of transcribing material that has been dictated or recorded in courtrooms, closed hearings, law offices, and personal interviews, among others. Just a few of the documents legal transcriptionists transcribe include meeting minutes, hearings, courtroom testimony, interrogations, and pleadings.

The Job Duties and Responsibilities of the Legal Transcriptionist

The job of a legal transcriptionist involves memorializing legal proceedings through any number of methods, computer software, and programs. Legal transcriptionists are responsible for listening to legal recordings and typing the information in correct form. The goal of legal transcriptionists is to provide expertly crafted documents that can be used or referred to at a later time.

The job of legal transcriptionists begins when they receive the recorded court proceedings or other recorded information via audio tapes and accompanying notes. They closely listen to the recorded information, taking note of important details. To effectively perform their job, legal transcriptionists must:

  • Have a familiarity of legal terminology and jargon
  • Possess knowledge of the legal system
  • Possess excellent grammar, spelling, and language skills
  • Understand the importance of composition and formatting
  • Possess excellent computer skills
  • Work well under strict deadlines
  • Have a keen eye for detail

What is the Difference Between a Court Reporter and a Legal Transcriptionist?

The term transcriptionist is a rather broad one, with a number of specialties falling under it. The legal transcriptionist and court reporter, for example, are both transcriptionists who transcribe the spoken word. However, beyond that, their job duties and the settings in which they perform those duties are quite different.

Court reporters (also called stenographers) transcribe the proceedings in a court of law. They may also lend their expertise to other domains, such as closed captioning and webcasting services. It is their responsibility to memorialize everything spoken or gestured in the proceeding. Therefore, they must transcribe the actions and words of the judge, the bailiff, the attorneys, witnesses, and jurors throughout a legal proceeding. Court reporters generally utilize a steno machine to accomplish their task.

Court reporters must complete a formal court reporter program, which often consists of an associate’s degree or professional diploma/certificate program. In some states, court reporters must be licensed, which may require passing a state exam or achieving national certification through either the National Verbatim Reporters Association or the National Court Reporters Association.

A legal transcriptionist, on the other hand, transcribes previously recorded or transcribed proceedings to make a formal, written copy. Legal transcriptionists today often receive the recorded proceedings in a digital format. Depending on the job performed, legal transcriptionists may use a variety of software platforms and transcription machines.

Unlike court reporters, who work on site, legal transcriptionists have the luxury of working remotely, usually from their home or in a law office. Some companies and law firms outsource legal transcribing work to freelancers or transcription companies, while others prefer in-house transcriptionists.

How to Become a Legal Transcriptionist: Earning a Career Diploma and Becoming Certified

Complete a Legal Transcriptionist Career Diploma Program – Individuals who want to become a legal transcriptionist can accomplish their goal by completing a legal transcriptionist career diploma program, usually housed in a vocational, technical, or professional school.

These programs, which typically last between 5 and 12 months, arm students with knowledge of the legal system, jurisdictional laws, and business law as they teach them key concepts of our nation’s court systems, legal concepts, the foundations of American law, and common legal terms, among others.

Legal transcriptionist career diploma programs teach students how to transform dictated or recorded information into hard-copy documents using word processing and transcription software along with digital dictation transcriber machines and conventional transcription machines. In addition to classroom study, these programs allow students to practice their newly developed skills through practice exercises that provide them with plenty of opportunities to hone their proofreading, grammar, spelling, and typing skills.

Legal transcriptionist career diploma programs also prepare students through coursework in business English, which encompasses everything from subject-verb agreement and capitalizations to commonly misspelled words and sentence structure. Students who have completed post-secondary English and business courses or have passed a proficiency examination may be able to transfer credits and complete their program sooner.

A well-rounded career diploma program for legal transcriptionists also includes study in:

  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Stress and time management
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Preparing pleadings, discovery, and appellate documents
  • Using legal libraries and online resources to perform legal research

Online legal transcriptionist career diploma programs offer students the ability to complete their education and training in legal transcribing from the comfort of their home. All coursework and practical labs are completed via an interactive, online platform. Students of these programs must have a computer with a current operating system and high-speed internet access.

Become Nationally Certified as a Legal Transcriptionist – In addition to completing a career diploma program in legal transcribing, legal transcriptionists may set themselves apart from other professionals in the field and present proof of their professionalism and commitment to the profession by becoming nationally certified as a legal transcriptionist.

The American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers (AAERT) offers the Certified Electronic Transcriber (CET) designation, which requires passing a written examination on legal transcription, with a digital focus.

Candidates for the CET certification examination must pass an online, multiple-choice knowledge test and produce a 10 to15 page transcript from a digitally recorded proceeding. Candidates must pass the knowledge portion of the exam before they can sit for the practical portion.

Questions in the knowledge portion of the CET exam cover the following topics:

  • Transcript formatting and proofreading
  • General court procedures and practices
  • Vocabulary

Test takers must score at least 80 percent to continue on to the practical exam. Test takers who have passed can schedule a time to take the practical exam. A 98 percent accuracy rate is required to pass the practical exam.

CET holders must recertify every 3 years. The recertification process includes remaining a member in good standing of AAERT and completing at least 3 CEUs.

Salary Expectations for Legal Transcriptionists

Salaries for legal transcriptionists rise appreciably with experience. Many large law firms require legal transcriptionists with many years of experience. However, entry into the field is often achieved by working for national transcription companies or by freelancing.

The following job listings (sourced in May 2016 from indeed.com) reveal some of the earnings for legal transcriptionists:

  • Carlisle, PA: $14/hour
  • Kent, WA: $22/hour
  • Bozeman, MT: $18.25/hour
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