When Ginger Copeland founded Alpha Reporting Service LLC with Olivia Jackson in 1981, stenotype machines weren’t computerized and all of the documents had to be transcribed on electric typewriters using messy carbons.

“Now, our clients get their documents electronically,” says Copeland, Alpha Reporting Service’s sole owner since her partner’s retirement in 2005. “We’ve almost gone all paperless.”

There have been other changes in the business via updated court-reporting technologies. For example, Copeland says the old stenotype machines that cost about $500 are now roughly $5,000 for the modern models. There is also the ever-changing software, also priced at $5,000 a pop for upgrades, she says.

Last year, Copeland installed a $15,000 video conferencing system. Now, she or one of her 16 independent freelance court reporters can record a deposition sitting with attorneys in her Springfield office, while other attorneys and witnesses may be on the other side of the world.

Bucking the traditional, stationary courtroom-reporter model of feverish typing, Copeland chose the independent contractor route, mostly taking depositions in attorneys’ offices.

The work has taken her to such places as New York and St. Thomas, but Copeland says her most interesting job remains the no-dancing case in Purdy in the late 1980s. Copeland says Alpha Reporting took all of the depositions for the case, in which a federal judge ruled that the school board must remove its century-old ban on school dances because it infringed on the First Amendment.

The company also has recorded depositions at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners.

“I can’t think of anyone who was particularly famous,” Copeland says. “But I’m sure they all thought they were.”

Copeland says her contract court reporters earn between $30,000 and $90,000 a year, depending on experience and hours worked. They also have to make the $10,000 investment for their own stenotype machines and software.

Laura Pratt, who has done work for Alpha Reporting as a court reporter since 1991, says variety and opportunities are the main lures for freelancing.

“It’s different every day, and I’m always learning something,” Pratt says.

Alpha Reporting mostly performs work for attorneys who work on medical or insurance cases. Copeland has become more active in getting the word out that the company offers services for any type of depositions or legal proceedings.

“For 27 years, we relied on word-of-mouth and did no advertising. Now, we are advertising in trade publications,” she says, singling out about 10 percent of Alpha Reporting’s operating budget as earmarked for advertising.

While Copeland declined to disclose revenues, she says the company has faced recent declines – 2.5 percent in 2008 and a 4 percent drop last year. The falling revenues were behind Copeland’s decision to invest in the video conferencing system. Clients pay $100- to $150-an-hour for use, but it only makes up about 2 percent of the company’s revenue, which is on an 8 percent upswing through April.

“We hope to have it pay for itself at some point, but we really did it to add a value service for our clients,” Copeland says.

Attorney Rod Loomer has taken notice. He says his firm – Turner, Reid, Duncan, Loomer & Patton PC – likes the perk of the video conferencing room. Specializing in representing insurance companies, hospitals and automobile manufacturers in litigation, Loomer and partners have used Alpha Reporting since Alpha Reporting opened.

“We always have confidence the transcripts will be accurate, and the reporters are pleasant to deal with,” Loomer says.

Alpha Reporting employs four full-time staff members who split time between Joplin and Springfield. The company records more than 1,500 depositions per year.

Copeland says Alpha Reporting historically grew about 2 percent to 3 percent a year, hitting a record of 13 percent growth in 2006. She attributes the growth to large cases that required more depositions. Copeland also began recruiting court reporters in 2004 from the American Institute of Business in Des Moines, Iowa, which allowed her to grow her pool of contractors.

“We don’t have that many court reporting schools around, and it’s not something where you can just place an ad and get qualified people,” says Copeland.

About 40 percent of Alpha Reporting’s business comes from outside the Springfield and Joplin areas, mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, Contributing Writer

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 6:42

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