Wanted: people who will play a vital role in a courtroom without saying anything or taking part in the proceedings - court reporters. In a film with a big courtroom scene, you can always tell when the defendant has said something important like, "Yes, I did cut my wife into small pieces and feed her to the goldfish." This is the point when the fingers of the official typing the official record suddenly freeze in amazement.

Chris Armstrong has played that stenographer, in the Lee Marvin movie The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission, but she did not need any acting abilities. Taking down verbatim records of legal proceedings is her job. She is a court reporter - not in the sense of a journalist reporting about the court, but as someone reporting the proceedings to the court. She is a stenographer, that is, a shorthand writer, although pens are being replaced by special typewriters. In addition, a verbatim reporter takes records in public inquiries, tribunals and business conferences.

In an age of digital recording and videoconferencing, it might seem archaic to employ a human being to make a note of every word spoken at important legal proceedings. Electronic recordings are indeed used but, as the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters points out, a tape is only a tape. A judge might want to refresh his memory of a crucial exchange during a cross-examination: "A five-minute passage will initially take five minutes to listen to." Playing it again takes another five minutes - quite apart from the time taken to find it. By contrast, a written transcript allows the eye to scan rapidly over the salient points.

The mistaken belief that stenography died out with the invention of the tape recorder could be keeping suitable applicants away from joining this profession. There is still an enormous need for the fleet of finger, ear and brain. After qualifying at Merrill Legal Solutions in Fleet Street, stenographers can earn between £16,000 and £60,000, depending on their speed and type of work. Taking depositions for American legal cases is particularly well paid. As well as training stenographers, Merrill also employs them freelance for work all over the world.

Applicants need A-levels and generally have degrees, with law and English particularly useful. A good use of English is essential, as is good general knowledge. The Merrill selection process is rigorous and, once accepted, few fail to complete the 11-month course.

The traditional pen-and-Pitman-shorthand is still to be found, but Merrill teaches the Steno machine with its special ergonomic keyboard. The stenographer fingers "chords", hitting more than one key at a time to produce entire words. (Many stenographers are competent musicians.) It is possible to take down up to 250 words a minute. Few people yak faster than that.

The machine puts out the words in a phonetic form, which can be "translated" by software in an attached laptop computer. "Real-time" recording is expected to be a growth area; a couple of seconds after they have been uttered, the words appear on computer screens, both on and off the premises.

The stenographer is not a judge of those words, merely the recording angel. "I am not biased," says Chris Armstrong. "I am not concerned if what they are saying is right or wrong." She has shared toffees with Bruce Forsyth at his divorce proceedings and Mick Jagger put his arm round her during an examination of Rolling Stones finances.

Her worst moment was back in the days of capital punishment: she realised the words she was tapping out meant the two men appealing against their murder conviction had lost their case. They were the last in Britain to be hanged.

Merrill Legal Solutions (www.wordwave.co.uk, 190 Fleet Street, London EC4A 2AG, 020-7404 1400) provides an 11-month training course. Trainees receive a salary of £13,000, plus tuition valued at £4,500; these sums are repaid from fees after qualifying. Inquiries to Beverley Loram or Anne Kiss.

Stenography FAQs from the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters: www.bivr.org.uk.

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