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How to Become a Legal Transcriptionist: A Comprehensive Guide

Published on: Jul 2, 2024

The earliest scribes wrote down the words of kings and other court officials for posterity. Today, legal transcriptionists make a written record of different kinds of court proceedings. Modern transcriptionists also make records from audio or video recordings so attorneys and judges can review them after the fact.

Legal transcription differs from court reporting, which records events in a court or deposition as it happens. Legal transcription takes an audio or video recording and makes a written record of the sounds verbatim. Transcription lets a reviewer pinpoint specific parts of the record, and a transcript can be entered as evidence.

Becoming a legal transcriptionist requires training and practice. Court agencies may require certification with a particular agency. Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a valuable part of the transcriptionist’s toolbox. We’ll cover all these important factors in this article.

Common Responsibilities of a Legal Transcriptionist

Not all court proceedings or legal hearings have a court reporter. Stenographers are expensive and in short supply. In many legal proceedings, the attorney may have the hearing recorded and hire a transcriptionist to write up the recording later.

A legal transcriptionist must be fast, accurate, and technically savvy. In most legal transcriptionist jobs, the transcriptionist receives a digital copy of the recording from the client or court. In times past, the recording was on tape or CD, but today, it may be a .wav or other audio file. Attorneys may have a template they want the transcriptionist to use, or the transcriptionist may have their format.

Transcriptionists use a foot pedal combined with the software to advance and rewind the recording as needed. Most transcription software lets the transcriptionist adjust the recording's volume, treble, base, and background noise.

Once the transcript is complete and formatted, the transcriptionist will do a “listen-through” for accuracy and do a spelling and grammar check. Depending on the nature of the recording, the transcriptionist may need to:

  • Highlight unknown speakers or sounds

  • Time breaks or periods off the record

  • Footnote citations to a court transcript or other document

When the transcript is complete and formatted, the transcriptionist returns it to the client. The best transcriptionists put accuracy over speed.

Legal transcripts can be entered into the court record, so a transcriptionist must know legal terminology and jargon. The transcriptionist also needs to know different formatting requirements for legal documents and what questions to ask attorneys and legal professionals if the instructions aren’t clear. For instance, if you don’t know whether the court uses pleading paper for depositions, you must also know what it is and have a template for it.

Some of the documents you may receive in a legal transcription job include:

  • Court hearings and trials

    Some states only use court reporters for felonies and juvenile cases, so transcriptionists are essential for transcribing recordings of other cases

  • Depositions and interviews

    Parties must provide their own reporter for depositions and may not want the extra cost of a court reporter.

  • Mediation and arbitration sessions

  • Attorney consultations and witness interviews

    Attorneys may want a hard copy of any discussions for easy review after the interview.

  • Police interviews, 911 calls, and interrogations

A court reporter may create transcripts, but the reporter fulfills a much more active role in court proceedings. The court reporter is trained in a specialized niche to use stenography to convert words to text at the speed of the spoken word—as rapidly as 225 words per minute. Unlike a transcriptionist, who uses pre-recorded audio or video tapes and transcribes from them, the court reporter uses a stenotype machine or text-to-type software in conjunction with stenotype to record voices in real time.

A court reporter’s services are used in court proceedings so that witness testimony can be read back as it happens. Every word spoken during a trial must be “on the record” (even things that are said “off the record”), so a court reporter must have good listening skills and accurate stenography skills.

Court reporters who work in courtrooms must be certified by one of several recognized certifying agencies:

These agencies also offer certification for legal transcriptionists.

Qualities of a Great Legal Transcriptionist

A good legal transcriptionist must have good ears and nimble fingers. More importantly, you’ll need a firm grasp of English and a good understanding of legal terminology and jargon.

It helps to have a good ear for accents and dialects. You may get transcripts from all over the country, primarily if you work freelance, and regional accents can initially cause novice transcribers some difficulties. AI will never fully replace human transcriptionists and reporters because of these regional differences.

Transcribing is a delicate balance between accuracy and speed. Any transcript is needed immediately; most agencies and clients need nearly 100% accuracy. You must have outstanding time management skills and a good understanding of what you can deliver daily and weekly. A thirty-minute transcript may take twelve hours to produce or longer if the audio quality requires enhancing.

Microsoft Word and other document programs have some downloadable templates, but transcript formatting may be court-specific. You may need to create templates and have a stock of document formats for your clients. Even if you work for a firm or are on-call for a court, you will need someone to oversee your daily routine. You must be able to set your schedule and turn your work in on time, or you won’t get many more assignments.

Common Paths to Becoming a Legal Transcriptionist

When considering becoming a legal transcriptionist, reviewing the available entry-level jobs in the field is an excellent place to start. Since much of legal transcription involves a knowledge of legal terminology, any administrative job, such as a legal secretary or legal assistant, is a good springboard into legal transcription.

A transcription job can flow naturally out of a secretarial post if your firm needs someone already at the company interested in learning how to transcribe the firm’s audio material. Proactively mentioning this to your attorney could open the career path for you.

If you’re looking for a side gig, begin looking for low-level transcription jobs on job boards like Indeed. These sites have numerous entry-level and practical earn-as-you-learn jobs where companies will teach you the job details while you ramp up your knowledge.

Becoming a member of AAERT or NVRA gives you access to their job boards and internships, although you may only have full access once you are certified by their agencies.

Educational Requirements for Legal Transcriptionists

You may not need a legal degree to secure a transcriptionist job. However, the certification exam from the AAERT requires knowledge of legal procedures and vocabulary, so you’ll need some training in the law. Legal professionals such as paralegals and legal secretaries have the education to become transcriptionists without additional coursework.

Having an AA degree or higher in any field is never bad for your career goals. Some colleges offer degrees or certificate courses in legal transcription if you want a degree to back up an AAERT certification. Legal transcription classes will provide you with training in:

  • Legal terminology and vocabulary

  • Transcription software and technology

  • Formatting, editing, and proofreading

  • Self-marketing and job hunting

You should understand the difference between a certificate and certification. A certificate means you have completed a course of study in a particular discipline, in this case, legal transcription, and been recognized by the school. Certification means that you have been tested by an agency or accrediting association that sets standards in your profession, and you meet those standards.

Certification for Legal Transcriptionists

The AAERT Certified Electronic Transcriber (CET) certification is the primary certification agency for court reporters and legal transcriptionists nationwide. Some court systems and agencies require the AAERT certification for employment. Most colleges and vocational schools that offer certificate courses in legal transcription teach the CET class so that graduates can take and pass the CET exam.

You do not need a certification to become a legal transcriptionist, but you should know that the best-paying jobs (court reporters) all require AAERT or similar certification. In some states, such as California, you can only apply for a court reporting position with a certification.

Unlike other professional certification tests, there are no requirements for the CET exam. Instead, the AAERT recommends that testers:

  • Be eligible (but not have) a notary public commission

  • Have a high school diploma or GED

  • Have one year’s experience as a court reporter or transcriber or

  • Have completed a course of study in court reporting

The National Verbatim Reporters Association (NVRA) offers certification in Legal Transcription. The exam is limited to members of NVRA.

The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Legal Transcription

According to a recent Forbes article, despite the growing presence of artificial intelligence in legal transcription, AI is unlikely to replace humans in the transcription field any time soon. AI transcription software has some decided advantages over human electronic reporters. AI is undoubtedly:

  • Faster, especially in bulk transcription of multiple recordings

  • Cheaper, since the only cost is for bandwidth and upgrades

  • More scalable, as an AI system is readily adaptable to any number of requests

However, AI is inferior to humans where it counts: accuracy and context. As anyone who has read real-time AI closed captioning knows, AI needs help understanding dialects and can only sometimes comprehend idioms and contextual remarks. Humans are better at understanding and adapting to:

  • Rapid changes in speakers, especially when individuals talk over one another or have similar-sounding voices

  • Contextual nuance, nonverbal cues, and idioms.

  • Accents, dialects, slang, and jargon.

Hybrid human-AI transcription is likely the way of the future. AI is undoubtedly faster, but even with the best systems, which are accurate at 86%, they need to be better for legal or medical work. Humans must come in afterward and correct the errors. A reliable human with a good AI software kit can count on good job security in the future.

Tools and Software for Legal Transcriptionists

A good transcriptionist must have good transcription software. If you work for a transcription service or law firm, chances are they’ll have their own, but if you are freelance, you’ll need your own. Express Scribe has a free downloadable system (with a professional upgrade) that runs with Microsoft Word and other popular word processing programs.

Whatever software you get, you need to look for these features:

  • A USB foot pedal that interfaces with the audio playback. The pedal should be large and comfortable because your foot will be resting on it all day

  • Full audio format support (.wav, MP3, DSS, etc.)

  • Variable speed playback, with treble/bass controls

  • Hotkeys for mouse-free playback

  • Speech-to-text and voice recognition

If you get a free download, it should be upgradable and expandable. Look for generous support options and live chat support.

Job Search Strategies and Networking

Job boards like Indeed and ZipRecruiter can point you in the right direction if you use the correct job description. Remember that a “legal transcriptionist” differs from a “court reporter,” and both differ from a real-time captioner. All these may pop up in a search, so it's up to you to screen your search results.

You may have better luck by joining AAERT or NVRA and searching their job boards. They specifically target legal transcriptionists and electronic recorders, so the keyword search will be narrower. Other agencies exist for court reporters and transcriptionists, exclusive to members, so your search parameters are more restricted.

AAERT and NVRA have annual conferences and online workshops open to the public. LinkedIn and Facebook should be used for networking, especially if you go freelance and need to find work. The American Bar Association and your state bar may also have resources for transcriptionists.

Key Takeaways

Becoming a legal transcriptionist requires accuracy, technological skills, and good case management skills. You’ll need a solid grasp of legal practice and terminology and be up-to-date on the latest transcription software.

If you want a career that allows you to take several directions, grow with your current firm or take off on your own, or start a lucrative side hustle, legal transcription may be right for you.

Visit the AAERT website and review their programs. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, including a new career in the legal field.

About the Authors

Written by:

Susan Buckner, Esq.

Susan Buckner has a J.D. from Whittier Law School. She’s a contributing author to FindLaw.com with over 350 published articles. Susan has been a legal writer and content provider for five years. She works with numerous online legal content agencies.

Susan worked with Whittier’s Family and Children’s Law Clinic as a junior editor with the Family and Children’s Law Journal from 2009-2011. After law school, she volunteered as a mediator with the Orange County Superior Court, with a 77% settlement rate.

Susan worked as a paralegal for solo attorneys in California and Florida. Her legal experience ranges from contract law to personal injury law, with a specialization in family and disability law. She has written on every legal topic, from contracts to intellectual property. She is also a published fiction and nonfiction author.

Susan lives and works in Southern California.

Susan Buckner, Esq.


Education: Whittier Law School, JD

Knowledge: Contract Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning