How Graham Smith-Bernal revolutionised court reporting

Graham Smith-Bernal jumped on the latest technology to bring dusty, old courtrooms into the twenty-first century. James McKeigue reports.

Judge gavel on the table with blurry books in the background
(Image credit: greenleaf123)


Graham Smith-Bernal, Opus 2 International

When Graham Smith-Bernal, 55, left school, the obvious option was to join his father's PR firm. However, while on a business course, he learnt how to use a stenotype machine. Little could he imagine back then where this new skill would take him. "Once I'd learned it, it was pretty easy to get a job as a court reporter." But several years later his boss suddenly shut up shop. Aged just 24, "I decided to start my own company".

After a few years of "very hard work" he built up a network of 100 court reporters and a host of large legal clients. Working with multinational law firms helped Bernal win business in America, where, due to the use of depositions (oral testimonies that are later submitted in writing), demand for his service was strong. His US exposure also kept Smith-Bernal abreast of emerging court reporting technology.

When powerful personal computers began to allow machine shorthand to be translated more quickly, Smith-Bernal spotted a gap. "In America the technology was being used to benefit the deaf, as court proceedings could be read on screen. But I realised it could have much wider applications."

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Quicker translation speeds meant that lawyers, who had previously had to wait until the evening to receive a transcript of the day's proceedings, could now get the information more rapidly. "If you can save your clients some of their evenings or weekends, they love it."

As the technological revolution gathered pace, Smith-Bernal sensed more opportunities. He commissioned a developer to work on a program that would turn the spoken into the written word instantaneously and allow lawyers and judges to view and annotate real-time transcripts of court proceedings. That meant "the judge wouldn't have to pause the case to take notes".

By 1991, his new service, LiveNote, was ready to be offered to clients. "Once people started to see the benefits they wanted to use it." Soon he set up separate businesses in Hong Kong and America. In Britain and Hong Kong, LiveNote was one of many court reporting services sold by Smith-Bernal, but in America it was a stand alone product that he licensed to other court-reporting firms.

By 1997, Worldwave, the world's largest court reporting and transcription service, had noticed his success and bought him out of Britain and Hong Kong for £15m. However, the deal allowed him to hang onto the American LiveNote business. Soon it was offering transcripts that were synchronised with videos and a platform allowing lawyers in different countries to work simultaneously on the same case.

By 2006, LiveNote's increasing capabilities had attracted attention from Thomson Reuters, which paid $70m for the firm. "It felt like the right time to sell. We had saturated the legal market and couldn't take it much farther."

After a few years focusing on other challenges, such as the 11th-century abbey he owns in Umbria, Italy, Smith is back in business. This time he's bringing technology to the courtrooms. His new firm, Opus 2 International, uses cloud computing to let judges and lawyers sift vast quantities of written information digitally. With sales hitting £4m last year, he is well on the way to his next success.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.