For These Are Jolly-Good Fellows!
An Interview by Jan Ballman FAPR, RPR, CMRS; Veritext-Minneapolis
He’s a six-time NCRA speed champ; she’s a past NCRA president and the current Executive Director of Project Steno. He’s an RMR; she’s an RDR. They’re both CRRs, Fellows in the Academy of Professional Reporters, and recipients of the coveted NCRA Distinguished Service Award. Together, they have a combined 98 years of industry experience. This month, Jan talks with one of court reporting’s most iconic couples—Ed and Nancy Varallo.
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW BELOW!
Jan: Ed and Nancy, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy lives to sit down and have a chat with us for The Veritext Voice. It’s an honor! I don’t think there is a reporter out there who doesn’t recognize the name “Varallo” and all you’ve done, both individually and collectively, for the profession of court reporting. I’m very excited to chat with you and hear your story!
Nancy: We’re excited to be here! Thank you for having us.
Ed: Nice to be here, Jan.
Jan: You know, I’ve known you both for decades, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of how you met.
Nancy: Do you want me to take that one?
Ed: Yes. I want to hear Nancy’s version of it.
Nancy: I started reporting in 1979, and Ed was winning contests, and we all knew who Ed was, but he first came to me personally in an article. In 1991 his dad passed away, and he wrote an article for the JCR in memoriam for his dad. And I remember reading the article and saying to myself, “I love this man!” And I did! His writing so impressed me. He worked for his dad; I worked for my dad, so it really touched me. And then we got involved with the Massachusetts Court Reporters Association. I was a young president coming on, and we were working on licensure, and Ed came to every meeting. Ed didn’t think we needed to have licensing; he felt the market would take care of itself. And I said, “We need to work on a bill that we both agree on…” And as I like to say, we’ve been compromising ever since. So it started over court reporting!
Ed: That’s mostly accurate. Nancy was President, and sometimes I would oppose Nancy at these meetings, and she decided to follow the rule: Hold your friends close…but hold your enemies closer. It worked!
Jan: That’s sweet. I love it! So this profession brought you together.
Nancy: It did.
Jan: That’s wonderful. So, how did you each find court reporting? Or was it more like court reporting found you?
Ed: Both of us come from a family of court reporters. My father, my uncle and two cousins were all reporters. And when I was in high school, I was certain I was going to be a failure in life, especially if I went to college, so I needed to find something to do that didn’t require college, so I decided to try court reporting. I knew my dad wouldn’t object to that! I started reporting school the summer between my junior and senior year in high school, and I loved it and discovered I had some talent for it. By the time I got out of high school, I was at 200 WPM. I graduated on a Friday, and on Monday I started at my uncle’s freelance agency in Philadelphia. In August, my uncle said, “You’re ready, Ed,” and he sent me out on my first deposition. I was 17 years old.
Jan: Wow… that might be the youngest I’ve heard yet. That’s fascinating. How about you, Nancy?
Nancy: So I, as Ed said, also come from a family of court reporters–my dad, my brother, my cousin—but I was a piano major in college. My father started his own freelance business the same week I started college, and over the next two years I watched him hiring young men and women, and they were all buying new cars and buying homes. And I thought, hmmm….piano teacher, or court reporter? So I switched keyboards and in September 1978 started reporting school, and in April 1979—six-and-a-half months later—I had reached 225 WPM. So it came naturally to me.
Jan: I’ll say!
Ed: That’s the fastest I’ve ever heard anybody get to 225–six-and-a-half months.
Jan: I’ve never heard these numbers before. They’re staggering! Now, Nancy, you said your father started a reporting business. Is that different from The Varallo Group that you own and run today?
Nancy: Yes. I worked for my dad for 22 years, and at some point I decided I wanted to strike out on my own, but I didn’t want to compete with my father and my brother and cousin, so I decided to create a business that I could have really used when I was working at my dad’s firm, which is a firm that supports court reporting agencies nationwide. We’re a virtual office and provide back-office support for court reporting firms. We answer their phones, answer their emails, schedule their reporters, do their billing and production, and we provide reporters to firms like Veritext when they have depositions in my neck of the woods. It’s unique in that all of my clients are other court reporting firms. So I turned my dad’s firm into a client, and my brother’s firm, and many others. It’s been a unique journey, and I’ve loved every minute of it!
Jan: Well, you certainly found a way to meet the unmet needs of many firms, which is great. And I’m sure your name added to your success. It’s a name we can all trust.
Nancy: Thank you.
Jan: Ed, I understand that you were the youngest court reporter to ever pass the Certificate of Merit exam at the age of 19. Everyone wants to pick the brain of someone like you. Did stenography just come naturally? Or by that point had you already figured out some efficiencies? Or is it just a gift?
Ed: Well, I passed the precursor to the RPR—the Certificate of Proficiency—at age 18, then passed the RPR; and after being in court reporting for one year I took the Merit certification, which is the same test as it is today—260 WPM on the Q&A—and I actually passed it on my 19th birthday. And as far as I know, I’m still the youngest person to pass the RMR. I don’t know if it came naturally, but I loved it. I love going fast. I skied fast, I used to be a drag racer, I loved motorcycles. I just loved going fast! And I loved going fast on the steno machine too. And as young as I was (I probably looked 16 at age 19), it was important for me to have certifications on my business card so when I handed them to lawyers, they didn’t look at me and think, “Who is this kid?” So I always liked passing tests.
Jan: So, you were a baby-faced kid with a need for speed. And your wife, she’s no slouch either when it comes to certifications. She went one notch further and is a Diplomate reporter. So my question for you, Nancy, is: You obviously respect the process of achieving demonstrable competence. Do you have any secrets or tips…? Or what drove you to take it all the way from the RPR to the RDR?
Nancy: I think reporters are self-competitive. It’s what gets us through school and gets us to pass a test and then flunk, flunk, flunk, then pass a test. And with a dad as a court reporter, it was inbred in me to always strive for the highest goal and be the best you can be, always. As far as tips for getting credentials, I think reading is vital to our career as court reporters. The more we read, the more we learn and the more we know. I think also networking and going to conventions and meetings, learning as much as we can learn, including learning from those around us. When you combine knowledge with the drive all reporters possess, I think anyone can do it.
Jan: Well, every certification is definitely hard-earned, so hats off to you both for what you’ve achieved, and hats off to all our accomplished certified reporters out there.
Ed, you’ve actually had some mind-blowing accomplishments behind the steno machine. I believe you posted a perfect score in the Q&A segment of the 1975 NCRA speed contest. Is that correct?
Ed: That’s right.
Jan: Ah, folks, that’s 280 words a minute for five minutes…without making a mistake! For us mere mortals, that’s almost incomprehensible.
Ed: Yeah, 280 is really fast, Jan. It’s almost five words a second.
Jan: [Gulp] Has anyone else ever achieved that, that you know of?
Ed: I don’t think anyone has scored a perfect paper on the 280 Q&A since then. I know my perfect score was the first ever in a national speed contest. I think others, four or five, have done so on other sections of the speed contest, but not on the Q&A. But stay tuned because sooner or later someone will, and I’ll be the first one to applaud them when they do.
Jan: I know you will be, Ed. But it’s a feat that’s very rare. And mind-blowing. So that was 1975. The year before that, in 1974, you also happened to be the NCRA Speed Champion; correct?
Jan: And in 1975 you were crowned Speed Champion as well, I take it? That perfect paper I’m sure helped!
Ed: It did.
Jan: And then, lo and behold, in 1976 you once again won! Your third consecutive national speed championship?
Ed: Yep. I won three years in a row—1974, ’75 and ’76. And at that time it was the custom to retire from competition after winning three in a row.
Jan: Kind of, “Let someone else have a chance!”?
Ed: Right. So that’s what I did—at 30 years old, I retired from competition. But then ten years later, in 1986, I was turning 40, Jan, and I was not happy about that, so I decided to set a challenge for myself, and I entered the speed contest again. By the way, by that time someone had won more than three NCRA speed contests in a row, so the custom of retiring kind of went by the wayside, so nobody objected to my coming back to the contest ten years later. And I won. And that was kind of fun. But I waited another ten years before entering again, so when I was 50, in 1996, I entered the speed contest again…and I won.
Jan: Of course you did!
Ed: Well, that was really great, but now the pressure was on! Do I try to do this again ten years later when I’m 60?
Ed: I decided to give it one more shot, shake my fist at fate, and see what happens. And I entered the 2006 NCRA speed contest, and I won. And I was smart enough to retire at that point. But I have to tell you, the 2006 convention in New York City was one of the happiest memories of my life. When I was up on stage receiving the award for winning the speed contest, I looked out over the ballroom, and my whole family was there literally jumping up and down in the air and screaming and yelling. It was a great day. I loved it. And winning in 2006 meant I had won at least one national speed contest in each of the last four decades. And that, to me, is a record of consistency. Competing in speed contests helped to keep my skills up, and the camaraderie is great, so I found it to be a lot of fun.
Jan: I was there in that ballroom in New York in 2006 when you bowed your head to take the blue ribbon, and I’m glad you gave us an idea for what it felt like up on that stage because, as I recall, the standing ovation went on for like three hours. Ed, you’re my GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)! No one else can boast of what you’ve accomplished in this profession. It’s very inspirational.
Ed: Thank you.
Jan: Turning back to you, Nancy; you started in the profession in 1975, you were the NCRA President in 2013, you’ve been an agency owner for over 20 years. You’ve seen a lot over that 44 years. Talk about some of the more profound changes you’ve seen over that period of time.
Nancy: I think the advent of the laptop computer really changed our profession. It was the beginning of CART. We couldn’t provide CART until we could carry a computer with us. Being able to do email, send transcripts, paperless copies… All of the technologies that we’ve been able to use in our careers created such a dramatic change for us.
I’ve spent a lot of volunteer time making sure we have court reporters for the future. I hear people worried: “Are we going to be replaced by technology?” I always have the same answer: We make technology happen for court reporting. And we make ourselves irreplaceable to our clients.
I think back on some of the big worries we’ve had. People were worried about emailing transcripts, about draft transcripts. You know, is this ethical? We’ve come through a lot of discussions and debates, and we’ve persevered. We’re better than ever. We’re in demand. I think the fact that court reporters are willing to embrace technology, get their credentials, be well-read, be on top of their game, really sets us apart from anyone else trying to take our jobs. So personally, I’m not worried that we will lose this profession or be replaced. I think we have done really good work as reporters to stay on top of technology. So, yes, I think the laptop computer, email, the internet…! Oh, my gosh, our offices used to be filled with yellow phone books and dictionaries and all kinds of reference materials. The internet has made our lives so much easier! So I think my answer is technology—all kinds of technology—has had the biggest impact on our profession.
Jan: Agreed, and well-put. Ed, what do you think?
Ed: I’d like to talk about the future of court reporting, which I think is excellent for stenographic reporting. When I retired in 2020, it was my 56th year as a court reporter. I started so long ago, I think dinosaurs were still roaming the Midwest. There was, of course, no internet. Photocopy machines were just being introduced. There were no cell phones. Court reporters either typed their own transcripts or dictated into a dictating machine for a transcriber to transcribe. And from the very first day of my career, I was told “we’re going to be replaced by tape recorders. I don’t know if there’s a future in this.” Well, 56 years after I was told I was going to be replaced by new technology, I retired… and steno was still the top technology.
I think our field, Jan, has been an absolute example of the old axiom that “the only constant is change.” When I started, there were no computers. When I started, it was considered bad form to use a tape recorder as a back-up. If you used a back-up, that was a sign you weren’t competent. Now fast-forward to today. We have audio sync, and I don’t know very many reporters who would think of going out on a job without it. Now nobody thinks a thing about it. In fact, if you don’t use it, people would ask why not? You should have that back-up on. That’s an example of a complete about-face in our field.
I also like the fact that technology has enhanced our value to the system. Technology has not replaced us. We have digital recording that is an alternative to a stenographic reporter, but it is not replacing us. We adopted computers into our field to make us better. I’ve been doing realtime for 25 years, since the mid-1990s. I adopted computers when they came into our lives, and it changed my life completely. I started to do realtime… and I got paid for it. I started to do draft transcripts… and I got paid for it. And because I could do those two things well, I got requested a lot because attorneys wanted those things. That was a great impetus to keep my skills up. It’s what led me to change the way I wrote shorthand so I could write clean notes all day long without wearing myself out.
Now we have competition in the form of voice-writers and digital. And they are going to be doing some of our work. And as we have more retirement of stenographic reporters than there are stenos to replace them, there are going to be more inroads for alternative means of making the record. But the fact of the matter is, the marketplace wants realtime, and for the moment, stenographic reporters provide the best in realtime skills. So as long as you’re a good realtime-capable reporter, you’ve got a bright future.
Jan: Great insights from almost 100 years of industry experience from this amazing couple. Very well-said: Technology is our friend, keep up your skills, anything’s attainable, and it’s very lucrative if you’re at the top of your game.
Nancy, you’re the Executive Director of Project Steno, an organization that promotes stenographic court reporting and captioning through community outreach, with the goal of building a robust pipeline of students into schools and graduating them in two years. Tell us about the impact Project Steno has made on the profession since its inception.
Nancy: Jan, you’ve reached my heart now! Yes, I run a court reporting firm, but my heart is really with our students. We have a great team at Project Steno; about 10 or 12 of us who have really done amazing work since 2017. And when you ask about the impact; we have a high school program right now where high school students are learning steno in places like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, California. We’re working very hard to bring attention to this profession to young people. Whereas there used to be a push toward four-year college degrees, I think there’s been a resurgence in technical and career training, and we’re being welcomed with open arms. What we need is court reporters to make the contacts at high schools for us, and we will provide all the resources they need to bring steno to high schools.
We also have a basic training program offered in high schools and to the general public. It’s one day a week for six weeks for about an hour and a half a week, and it’s an introductory program where they get their hands on the machine and try it out and see if they have the skills, dexterity, and even the desire to pursue court reporting. Our program has grown. We now have over 100 students a month enrolled in our basic training program. Court reporting schools tell us enrollment is up. Our students tell us they have confidence that maybe their fellow students don’t have. So I think we’ve had a big impact on enrollment and awareness, and we are doing well with our mission.
Ed: This high school initiative stands the prospect of being extremely significant. It took us a few years to realize our target audience is high schoolers before they pick a college. We need to convince high schoolers and their parents that court reporting, which does not require a four-year degree, can be a fine career. We’ve been tracking the students we’ve helped, and 47% of them graduated within two years, which is phenomenal because one of our great failures over the last three decades has been our abysmally low graduation rates. Because Project Steno has figured out how to vet the people who are most likely to succeed in court reporting and get them into school, we’re seeing graduation rates of almost 50%. So if this high school program is successful… there are high schools everywhere! We need a little cooperation from local court reporters to get us an introduction and a foot in the door at your local high schools. We’ll take it from there, and we’re going to produce students who want to go on to stenographic school. If we can do this all over the country, in 50 states, we’re going to solve the problem of the shortage of stenographic reporters.
Jan: It will have a profound impact, and it seems easy enough. We all know local high schools in our area. So, send you an email, Nancy?
Nancy: You bet: [email protected] Oh, and our programs are all taught via Zoom, and we’re always looking for guest speakers and instructors; people willing to teach. We have about 70 instructors right now, and I want to thank them for all of their time and commitment. Also, if you’re interested in just observing a class sometime, just let me know!
Jan: Yes, thanks to all of you. It’s the collective effort that’s making this work, and it’s great news for the profession.
I want to wrap this up with my favorite question. You two have been out there for a long time, and in this business there’s a lot of opportunity to report famous cases, famous people… it’s kind of a fun part of our job. What’s the most prolific or famous witness, or the biggest case you’ve ever reported? Let’s give the young reporters a little snap-crackle-pop in terms of what’s out there.
Nancy: I think the highlight of my career has been the team that I’ve been able to assemble to work on the September 11 terrorism cases down in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, working with some of the greatest writers and most dedicated court reporters I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. We send a team of reporters down to GITMO to cover those trials, and I think what they like most is working together as a team. And it’s been a wonderful opportunity for court reporters to showcase our skills. We’ve been vetted in the Oval Office, they discuss us, and so we’ve gotten some great profiling of our profession through that work we’re doing.
I’ve done some crazy cases. Young people may not remember who Abbie Hoffman is, but I did a big trial with Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter over a sit-in at the University of Massachusetts. So from time to time you get these really big cases, but most of our everyday work is just that—it’s everyday work. But it’s not just the high-profile cases that make you proud of what you do. When I did CART, the deaf and hard-of-hearing people I worked with would be so grateful and actually hug us and thank us for the work that we did. So it’s the everyday cases and people who make me feel so good about the work that I do. I’m humbled by the stories I hear, and I’m proud to be such an integral part of their right to our judicial process. Every single day I’m proud of the work we do.
Jan: That’s excellent. What about you, Ed?
Ed: I thought that was a good answer, honey. But all your answers are good.
Nancy: Oh, thank you, honey.
Ed: My CART work, I loved doing that. The only time I’ve ever been hugged on the job was by hard-of-hearing people we did CART work for. But now that I’m retired, I’m finally getting to pursue some of my lifelong interests—American history, philosophy, current events. Basically, how the world works. So when I think back on the cases I reported in my half-century career, it was the cases that gave me the opportunity to understand how big things work. One of them: Years ago, I got hired to do a daily copy trial that went on for months and months in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At the time, we were doing state-of-the-art things, and it was billed in the financial press at that time as the biggest civil litigation of that sort, ever. And the local paper came out and interviewed me and my team, and they put this big picture of me on the whole top of the front page of the Santa Fe newspaper with the interview. That was fun.
I’ll just mention one other case. There’s too many to mention, but one other one: In the early-1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin established a government, and the country of the Republic of Russia came into being, and they needed to establish capitalism in that country because it was trying to be a democracy, and they looked to experts in the United States. There was a big-deal litigation between USAID, an agency of the government that funded this help, and Harvard University and the Yeltsin government in Russia. And I spent many days over the course of a year at Harvard University reporting depositions of Russians and Harvard people and government people, and it was just fascinating because you got a look at the different mindset of Russian people, Russian society, and how different that mindset was from our mindset in the United States. I just found that absolutely fascinating. For someone like me who loves history and current events, I loved it. I couldn’t wait to go to work.
The last thing I’ll say is, because I like doing challenging work, most of the cases I remember challenged me as a court reporter. In Boston, we have a lot of high-tech industry, and I spent many days of my life reporting the depositions of biologists and chemists and physicists and molecular biologists in particular, and I’ve got to tell you, I found it hard enough, thank you, to deal with those cases…but, boy, it was fun.
Jan: There’s a lot of excitement to be had behind that machine, and every day is different. And the two of you could certainly fill a cocktail party with great stories…and hopefully we can do that again soon in person.
Just to close; Ed, we’ve talked about some of the most incredible things you’ve accomplished in your career. You’re retired now. Do you have any mechanism by which you can transfer some of your wisdom, knowledge, tips and tricks to reporters?
Ed: I do have a website, and I sell my book Ed’s Steno Pro on that website. I’d promote that book to any court reporter who wants to learn how to make their life easier by learning the right way to write shorter and how to create briefs that you can actually remember, which is the Holy Grail of court reporting. I’m putting up on my website some small pieces of that book, basically just showing you what’s in it. They’ll be accessible for free to anyone who goes to my website. And there’s a presentation I gave at StenoFest 2019, a one-hour talk entitled “How To Pass A Test Despite Your Nerves,” and it is what I have learned about how to take a test and pass, despite the fact you’re nervous. Because you’re always going to be nervous, but there are ways to deal with your nerves and still write your best. That’s up on the website, and it’s accessible to anyone for free who goes to edvarallo.com.
Jan: Ed, you’re a tried-and-true product of excellence, and I would consider that to be a bible of sorts, and anyone who wants to be a better writer should run right out and get it. You’ve attained what we’d all love to attain, and if it’s written down somewhere, we should take advantage of that.
Ed, Nancy, THANK YOU so much for your time today; thank you for all you’ve done and continue to do for the profession, and thank you for sitting for this interview and sharing your stories. We wish you all the best here at Veritext.
Ed: Thank you. It’s been fun to be here.
Nancy: Thank you so much, Jan.
About Jan Ballman – FAPR, RPR, CMRS – Principal, Minneapolis
Jan began her career as a court reporter in 1981. In 1990, she was elected President of the state court reporters association. This experience afforded the opportunity to meet many outstanding court reporters and industry leaders. In 1993, Jan collaborated with two highly regarded colleagues–Jayne Seward and Lisa Richardson–to form Ballman, Richardson & Seward. Five years later, Jan led the merger of BR&S with two well-known and highly respected firms–Schultz & Sorenson; and Oliver, Mitchell & Maves—and launched Paradigm Reporting & Captioning on January 1, 1998.
After a 20-year career as a court reporter, Jan retired her steno machine in 2002 in favor of taking the helm of Paradigm on a full-time basis.
A recognized leader at both the state and national level, Jan was bestowed Minnesota’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, by the Minnesota Association of Verbatim Reporters and Captioners in 2004. In 2010, Jan was elected to serve on the Board of Trustees of the National Court Reporters Foundation and was honored to accept the appointment as Chair of the Board from 2014 to 2016. In August of 2017, Jan was inducted into as a Fellow into the Academy of Professional Reporters. Currently, Jan Ballman is the only court reporter in Minnesota to have attained the professional distinction of FAPR.
Outside of her chosen profession, Jan enjoys working with local nonprofits, mentoring tomorrow’s leaders, and exploring the world of wine. Since 2011, Jan has been delighted to chair “Legal Wine Lovers,” an official affinity group of Minnesota Women Lawyers.