Christine Willette, RDR, CRR, CRC, recently became Esquire Deposition Solutions’ Vice President of Acquisition Strategy after more than three decades in the court reporting business as a court reporter and an agency owner. She has volunteered and served as a board member and president of the Wisconsin Court Reporters Association and the National Court Reporters Association. She enjoys sharing her passion for and knowledge of the profession through mentoring and education and has been an advocate for reporting industry interests on Capitol Hill.
This experience has given Willette a front-row seat as a participant and observer as the court reporting industry evolves to meet the challenges of new technology, shifting market demands, and a shortage of personnel qualified to perform its important work.
At Esquire, Willette’s primary responsibility is to identify and engage firm owners with whom a mutually beneficial opportunity exists. In this interview, she discusses the factors that led her to sell her own agency to Esquire and why other reporting agency owners might consider following the same path.
Your agency was recently acquired by Esquire and now you’re on the other side of the table making acquisitions for them. From your perspective as a local agency owner, what was the appeal of being acquired by a national agency?
Technology, quality of life, and increased service offerings and geographic coverage. Let me explain.
Information security is a top-of-mind issue within the legal profession today. Lawyers have an ethical duty to protect their clients’ information; and clients are demanding assurances that their lawyers can in fact meet this obligation. This means that court reporting agencies must themselves be able to assure lawyers that sensitive information shared during depositions will be transmitted and stored in a secure manner. Technology has changed the way we do our work. Paper delivery has transitioned to electronic delivery with PDF transcripts and exhibits. Data security has become a critical issue for the delivery of services in the court reporting industry.
Smaller agencies lack the resources to build a sophisticated data security infrastructure, and it’s very expensive to do so. That technological capability is something that Esquire has meticulously implemented for its clients. Their robust platform was very attractive to me when I was looking for someone to acquire my business.
The relationships I have built with my clients over my 35-plus-year career are important to me. I care about my clients, and the ability to provide a reliable solution to this technology challenge was a significant consideration. I also evaluated the availability of resources and additional services that might make the professional lives of my clients easier.
My own quality of life was added to the equation. Aside from court reporting services, agencies are like any other small business. The owner has all of the responsibilities that go into running a business.
Working with a larger company like Esquire reduces the stress of day-to-day management of an agency. Here we have a dedicated IT staff, production, human resources, client training, and a finance department —the things that go into running a modern reporting services company. The resources already in place at Esquire free up smaller reporting agency owners to do other things that are more valuable and meaningful to them, thereby giving them a more satisfying lifestyle.
Joining Esquire can also help increase the geographic footprint of services delivered to valued clients. With offices and resources throughout the country, Esquire is prepared to deliver consistency and quality wherever clients might need it. The majority of court reporters market their services by consistently delivering a quality product and building relationships. They depend on repeat business and word of mouth. Those are sound strategies, but they can only take you so far. Esquire brings to the table a dedicated sales and marketing team, providing brand awareness, advanced litigation support, and business development services not easily obtainable by smaller agencies.
What are some of the challenges faced by small to medium-sized reporting agencies today?
The industry is coping with a shortage of qualified stenographic court reporters. Stenographic court reporting is a difficult skill to attain. The aging population of stenographic reporters combined with the lack of graduates has created a shortage, making it difficult for reporting agencies to meet market demand. Groups like Solutions on Shortage (S.O.S.) and Project Steno, both of which I’m involved in, are working to address the problem. But until the pool of qualified court reporters grows, the industry is going to be stretched thin attempting to meet market demand.
It’s increasingly difficult for agencies to thrive by providing stenographic services alone. New digital services are entering the marketplace, but they require a huge investment of time and money to learn and implement. The shift is a difficult concept to accept for a firm owner who has been a steno advocate for their entire professional life. Many small to medium-sized firms do not have the resources or desire to add digital services to their offerings. So that’s a big pain point for a lot of agencies: How am I going to cover my book only using steno? Do I want to branch off into this new digital format?
The COVID-19 pandemic: curse or a blessing?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a whole new world of court reporting services, particularly remote depositions using videoconferencing technologies. Reporting via videoconferencing has been in the industry for decades but not very heavily used. It just never caught on until COVID-19 struck. Today we see how COVID-19 has propelled the legal profession years ahead in one short year. Remote depositions and virtual hearings allow justice to march on safely and cases to progress through the court system. I won’t say COVID-19 is a blessing. Let’s call it a driver for technological innovation in the legal profession.
The widespread adoption of remote depositions has also alleviated to some extent the shortage of court reporters. Court reporters can now serve clients during what would otherwise have been travel time. That has really changed the way business has evolved over the last year in particular, but I see it having a substantial impact in the future too.
Esquire is a values-driven company that takes seriously its mission to preserve and protect the sanctity of the record to ensure equal access to justice for all. Does values alignment have a role in the acquisition process?
First and foremost, the successful integration of a newly acquired business necessitates that their culture matches our culture. We want them to be focused on excellence, on delivering a quality product, getting it right for the client, and getting it right the first time. Neither of us will be served well if we don’t have alignment on the basics.
Second, we are looking strategically at areas of need. If we’re having trouble covering a certain geographic market, then agencies in that market are a potential target for us. We need people there to cover the work. We’re also considering markets where Esquire currently does not have a presence.
Joining Esquire allows agency owners and the reporters with whom they work to become a part of something that is bigger than what they can build on their own. Once we identify the right acquisition opportunity, the acquisition process begins with a simple conversation. Let’s get to know one another. Our goal is to explore the opportunities that will lead to successful outcomes for the seller, their reporters, and their clients.
Whether a firm is just beginning to think about succession planning or they are ready to formally engage in the acquisition process, I am grateful for the opportunity to start the conversation. I can be reached at email@example.com