Court Marshal

Cindy Hall went to court-reporting school to show she could ... and she sure could

by Keith Morrill

Cindy HallCindy Hall, the owner of Green Mountain Reporters in Montpelier, has reported for two U.S. presidents and a lot of lawyers, judges, celebrities, and politicians since entering court-reporting school in 1972. To get away, she takes to the open road on her Harley V-Rod.

Watching Cindy Hall at work is almost like being audience to a concert pianist. Her music, though, flows not from a baby grand; and the right sequence of keys and chords on her instrument of choice composes words and sentences instead of notes and phrases. 

Hall is owner of Green Mountain Reporters, a Montpelier agency of freelance court reporters who play out this verbal symphony on their stenographs in deposition rooms throughout Vermont and New Hampshire.

They are the silent, impartial presence at the end of the table. Not that they are limited to the confines of the deposition room; they have reported from locales as diverse as open pastures and the back of a loading dock, and for clients outside the legal field such as celebrities and politicians. Hall says few people know that any time the president speaks, a court reporter is present amid the media jungle, and she has reported for both President Clinton and the younger George Bush. 

Regardless of locale and client, Hall and her reporters are there to capture every word in an impressive act of prestidigitation. She breezes along at 260 words per minute, and boasts an incredibly small margin of error. “We take it down at 100 percent,” she says. 

This sets Hall and her reporters far above the average home typist, and in a situation where testimony is taken under oath, that kind of faultless precision is essential. 

It’s the sort of skill that comes after rigorous training and years in the industry. Hall got her start almost 35 years ago following her first year of college at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire campus. She was training to become an elementary school teacher, but after evaluating the job market, she decided things looked grim for a fledgling educator, and returned to her hometown of Darien, Wis., where she announced that she was quitting school. “My father was very annoyed,” says Hall. “And that’s stating it mildly.” 

Her father, a farmer working for the canned-food company Libby, McNeill & Libby, wasted no time putting her to work. “He put me on the corn line all summer long,” she says. “I stood there and put the small end of an ear of corn into a tray as fast as I could.” 

Lisa Hallstrom and Ginny SimmerReporters employ technologies that have done away with rolls of steno tape in favor of a wireless hookup to a laptop. Lisa Hallstrom (left) was a contractor until she was invited to become a partner in the business in the mid 1990s. Ginny Simmer is a contract court reporter.

It made for long days, and Hall realized she had to find another job. Her salvation came when her father told her how his secretary had tried her hand at court-reporting school and failed. “That was all I needed to hear,” says Hall, confessing that she’s “somewhat competitive.” She signed up for the court-reporting program at Gateway Technical Institute. 

If challenging was what Hall was seeking, she had found it. By the end of the first year half of her classmates had dropped out of the program, and when she graduated with her associate’s degree in ’74, only one-tenth of the original class remained. 

From there, Hall was hired immediately into the Vermont superior court system, working mostly divorce cases, and, eventually, the majority of murder cases in the state. Although she enjoyed the challenge of working the court system, she craved more diversity. “I could not see myself with a lifetime of sitting in the same courtroom in the same chair with the same cases.”

This was an impetus for starting Green Mountain Reporters in 1980. Her other reason, Hall admits, was due to a somewhat misguided notion. “I thought it would give me the freedom to raise a family,” she says with a wistful grin. “And while it does for most court reporters who subcontract with the court-reporting agencies, when you own the business, that’s not how it goes.” 

The family she hoped to raise was with accountant Douglas Hall, whom she married in July 1979. She chuckles when asked how they met, because he was a juror, and court reporters are not allowed to even speak with jurors, much less date them.

“It was after his term was over,” she says. “He knew me from the Valley, where we both lived, because we would meet out socially.” It was Hall’s first year to pay income taxes. Her accountant had told her she owed money, and she was not happy.

“Doug worked just down the road from me, and I knew he was an accountant,” says Hall, “so when he drove by, I threw all my papers down. He saw me, drove in, and asked what my problem was. I said, ‘My accountant told me I owe money.’ He offered to look through the return, and when he was finished, he said, ‘She’s absolutely right!’ and so we started dating.” She laughs as she confesses that she admitted this to him only a couple of years ago. 

The business grew rapidly, and in the mid-1990s, Hall took on a partner, Lisa Hallstrom, one of her contract reporters. “She’s a highly skilled reporter,” she says, “and she had a commitment to the business and Green Mountain Reporters in particular. I wanted to bring somebody into the business who would work their way through it and continue to have a commitment to the philosophy of Green Mountain Reporters.” 

Kelly GosselinGreen Mountain Reporters draws on a stable of seven to nine freelance reporters. Office manager Kelly Gosselin, with the company for 18 years, keeps the business end organized.

The third full-timer is office manager Kelly Gosselin, who has been with Green Mountain for 18 years. The company continues to draw on a steady pool of seven to nine freelance reporters. 

Those reporters use technologies that have reshaped the services the company offers. While the principles and heart of court reporting remain unchanged, a few technological face-lifts have done away with the rolls of steno tape in favor of a wireless hookup to a laptop. 

“I’ve always been one of the first to introduce this type of technology to the state,” says Hall. “I wanted my workload to be a little easier, and it’s something the attorneys could benefit from.” The benefits are numerous, starting with the ability to work in “real time,” which uses a dictionary of about 100,000 words to translate stenotype into English on the spot with 99.5 percent accuracy, she says. 

Attorneys are able to connect their computers directly to a reporter’s machine and get a real-time update of the proceedings, allowing them to review, annotate, and keyword-mark testimony on the spot. They can download the initial transcript and take it back to the office while waiting for Hall and her reporters to put finishing touches on it. 

In this stage, the reporters decipher any stenotype that wasn’t translated accurately. Afterward, they might play the part of information managers, syncing video with transcripts and scanning in and linking evidence exhibits. 

She has built a loyal following in the law community. Oreste Valsangiacomo, an attorney with Valsangiacomo, Detora & McQuesten PC with offices in Barre and Williston, has known Hall since she was a court reporter in superior court — “probably 30-plus years,” he says. “We have relied on Green Mountain Reporters very heavily, and have always appreciated their efforts and extremely capable work.” 

Hall has also recognized a need for her skills within the community at large, and extended the company’s services outside the legal field. She offers full CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) services, in which reporters go to classrooms, readings, trainings, seminars, and interviews to provide full captioning for the hard-of-hearing. 

The advent of these improved recording technologies has occasionally caused people — especially clients looking to cut costs — to question the need for the services of a court reporter. There have been times throughout her career when, Hall says, it’s been necessary to justify her services to clients. 

Most clients soon learn that the technology has yet to become so sophisticated as to replace a skilled court reporter, and even today’s best technologies often falter, fail, and/or deliver sub-par records that fall far short of the clean, organized, and accurate transcripts provided by court reporters. 

Perhaps, she says, some day the technology will catch up with court reporters, but until then, the best of equipment needs a skilled hand to monitor it.

Even with great skill and superb equipment, challenges are plentiful. Hurdles arise daily in the deposition room, from the riddle of translating a foreign language into stenotype to the difficulties of sitting through emotionally charged cases. “We’re not allowed to have opinions. We’re not allowed to have emotions,” says Hall, matter-of-factly. 

This is not always easy to manage. The deposition room is rarely a place of tranquility, and a deposition dealing with particularly grave subject matter can take its toll on reporters. 

“In the litigation setting, there’s nothing that we hear that’s good,” she says. “You have to go home; you have to forget it at the end of the day.” 

She has a few tricks for blowing off steam. These include tranquil hobbies such as gardening and quilting. She also takes comfort in family. This summer, she and Doug will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Their daughter, Lauren, 26, is pursuing a degree in integrated business and science in Wisconsin; their son, Jeff, 24, works with Credit Suisse in Raleigh, N.C.

To truly get away from it all, Hall takes to the open road on her Harley V-Rod. A few years back she logged 14,000 miles in a single summer. “Doug has a Honda Gold Wing, so I let him go with me,” she says, “but we go basically anywhere the road takes us.”•