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The Uber Analogy
The first taxi appeared in New York City in 1907 and has since remained relatively unchanged—except for the introduction of regulations. Many major cities began to issue set numbers of taxi medallions, which authorize a constrained number of vehicles to pick up passengers. At one time, medallions were worth $1 million in New York City.
Then came Uber and Lyft. Uber first appeared in New York City in 2010 with just three cars and the goal of capitalizing on the shortcomings of the taxi industry: ease of use, better customer experience, scalability, and one key, underserved demographic—the outer boroughs.
In 2016, Uber went from 56,000 weekly rides in New York City’s outer boroughs to 167,000 weekly rides in 2017. Taxi drivers protested Uber leveraging fear that Uber was a less regulated service and therefore posed a security risk to public safety. Today there are about 80,000 Uber drivers in NYC compared to approximately 40,000 taxi drivers and in the latest move, Uber is now adding taxis to the app as a selection. Is this the story of a tech disruption settling into a peaceful co-existence?
Stenographic Court Reporting: Underserving Lawyers and Clients
Like the taxi, stenography—which hit the market in or around 1879—has a long and entrenched history in the legal industry and was a semi-protected practice by state regulations, which have been interpreted as stipulating stenography as the technology of choice for court and deposition reporting. As such, stenography has faced or needed little in terms of innovation.
143 years later, the industry of stenography is facing some of the market shortcomings that the taxi industry faced and leaving it vulnerable to disruption: ease of use, customer experience, scalability and an underserved demographic—lawyers and their clients.
There’s a well-documented stenography shortage, which is the result of basic math: fewer graduates and an increasing number of retirees. The shortage today is triggering significant delays to proceedings and, by the laws of supply and demand, a sharp increase in costs.
Training more operators has been the answer put forth by the steno community, including the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), but initiatives such as Project Steno have been underway for many years to recruit and train more operators without changing the trend. This means the shortage is forecast to worsen over time, not improve.
It’s a moment ripe for disruption because, quite frankly, these market dynamics have not materialized in a vacuum. The underlying technical limitations that prevented capturing speech in other ways have long since passed. The shortage, plus the uptick in technology adoption, powered by the pandemic, might just be the final straws that break open court reporting to tech-driven services—even artificial intelligence.
Could AI-Assisted Court Reporting Be the Future?
The challenges of ease of use, better customer service and scalability are a textbook use case for AI. AI can scale without limit and creates a key advantage over manually managed environments where scale is limited by availability to headcount. And it’s a boon market. AI tools have become one of the top tools law firms are investigating to deliver greater client value and efficiency in one fell swoop, which is why we see AI software market in the legal industry is projected to register a growth of over 28% over the forecast period 2021-2026.
And here’s the thing—AI for court and deposition reporting wouldn’t just be about addressing the stenographer shortage of today or tomorrow, AI can potentially provide a substantially improved customer experience, too. The speed and accuracy of an AI tool can enable rough transcript availability during live proceedings—meaning annotation and collaboration with co-counsel could occur in the moment to significantly improve legal services provided to clients and potentially impact client outcomes.
AI is faster than humans, but in situations that involve real-world knowledge, humans may have an advantage when it comes to recognizing speech. The answer may lie, therefore, in a hybrid model of AI-assisted human transcription, which would combine the strengths of both artificial and human intelligence for optimal results.
This is done by assigning the AI the most difficult “heavy lifting” part of the task—the initial transcription of the proceeding—which AI can tackle with unmatched speed and cost. Add on to this an iteration of human transcriptionists that review the AI-generated text on a slight delay to provide extremely accurate, human-reviewed transcripts during the proceeding to benefit the delivery of legal services, and we’ve got a solution that is faster, better, cheaper and which radically transforms customer experience.
In the End: Customer Experience Always Wins
A common objection in the stenographic community to court and deposition reporting by other means than stenography is compliance with state regulations, as well as the security and accuracy of the transcripts.
This is understandable as the rigorous training and certifications required to become a stenographer are difficult to achieve—in fact, a small percentage of those who matriculate graduate to become a certified stenographer because the standards are so high. But it’s the age-old AI versus human argument, and we know where it lands. Plus, if AI is only the first wave of transcriptionist and a series of human transcriptionists are deployed, that real world accuracy is preserved—only faster.
Another objection that is occasionally raised is Rule 30, which in some jurisdictions specifies that testimony should be captured “by stenographic means.” This part of the rule also specifies that the method selected must be stated in the notice. It is important to note that even Rule 30 has come under scrutiny for cost concerns and, as such, the federal rule has been amended over the years to include “other than stenographic” means of capturing the record—a move specifically designed to allow using electronic methods to reduce costs.
This intended goal is implicit in Rule 29, which allows the parties to stipulate on discovery procedure. This means the rules also allow for additional non-stenographic methods—such as a technology-driven solution—and simply require that these are agreed upon by the parties in the stated notice.
In the end, however, it’s customer experience that always wins. Once consumers have a taste of better service—in this case better legal service—then the revolution happens, no matter what regulation may be in place or what the interests of a vested party may object to. As we see the paradigm evolve to Uber now offering taxis as an option, we see that it can be a continuum of disruption and rebalancing that keeps industries moving forward—and that’s the beauty of it all.
Dean Whalen is the Chief Legal Officer of Readback, an AI-assisted deposition court reporting platform with active reporting capabilities. Readback combines human transcriptionists and AI to deliver high-quality transcripts for attorneys to view and use during proceedings and one-day certified transcripts for low, flat rates.