Judges lead noble and highly respected careers, are seen as leaders in the community, are tasked with upholding the law of the land, and the pay isn?t too bad either. But before you begin the long career path to becoming a judge, you need to understand what the job entails.
What Does a Judge Do?
The primary function of a judge is to preside over court proceedings impartially. It?s up to a judge to enforce procedures in a courtroom, hand down sentences, and even sometimes interpret the law, affecting laws across the country.
Judges are either appointed by the government or elected by the voters. Their salaries are paid by the township or state they are employed in or the federal government.
Even though becoming a judge occurs through appointment or election, it is a professional job that requires specific licenses and qualifications. Without them, a person aspiring to be a judge will not be eligible for election or appointment.
As a judge, you will perform the following functions:
- Supervise legal proceedings
- Preside over trials and court hearings
- Uphold the rights of those involved in a legal process
- Ensure that trial proceedings are in line with established rules and procedures, including the submission of evidence and testimonies
The court proceedings over which a judge presides may or may not involve a jury. In a non-jury criminal trial, the judge is responsible for determining the innocence or guilt of the defendant. In civil cases, the judge determines the liability of each party and compensation if applicable.
In addition to managing court proceedings, a judge may also maintain a law practice or act as a legal educator.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Judge?
How long it takes to become a judge varies. Some factors that influence the length of time it takes to become a judge include the number of years you spent as an undergraduate, how long it took you to get in and out of law school and pass the bar exam, how long you practiced as an attorney and the type of judge you want to be.
For most people, it takes about seven years to become a licensed attorney?four years in college and three more in law school?before passing the bar exam. But this timeframe may be longer or shorter for some individuals, depending on their unique circumstances.
For example, a two-year Juris Doctor (J.D.) program takes six years instead of seven. In contrast, a five-year undergraduate program plus three years in law school means eight years of schooling before you may become a practicing attorney.
After you become a licensed lawyer, you can officially begin working toward becoming a judge. There?s no set amount of years you need to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. While you?re lobbying for a judgeship, however, you can practice law privately.
Some aspiring judges may work in a government agency, with the city or county prosecutor?s office, or as a legal consultant. During this time, you can further your legal education by getting a Master of Law degree (L.L.M.) or Doctor of Law degree (J.S.D. or S.J.D.) to solidify your knowledge of every area of law.
After years of practice, you may earn an appointment or be elected as a judge, especially if you have extensive experience in trial proceedings. That said, there are certain types of judgeships in specific states that don?t require legal practice experience.
How to Become a Judge
By following the below steps, you can qualify to be a judge in most states in the U.S.:
1) Earn Your Undergraduate Degree
First, you?ll need an undergraduate degree before you can qualify to get into law school. What you major in doesn?t matter much to prospective law schools, so we recommend taking a path about which you are passionate. But it is important to remember that law schools do care about your grade-point average (GPA). If you graduate with a GPA of at least 3.00 to 3.50, you?ll increase the likelihood of getting into your preferred law school.
2) Pass the LSAT
You?ll need to pass the law school admission test (LSAT) to get into most law schools. The law school you want to attend will help you identify how high you need to score on the LSAT to be considered for acceptance. The average score among LSAT takers is 150. But to get into a top-10 law school, you need a score of at least 165, and for a top-50 law school, you?ll need a score of at least 155.
Your LSAT score and your GPA are the primary factors on which law schools depend to determine whether they?ll grant you admission to their program. That said, some law schools have begun accepting graduate record examinations (GREs) in place of LSAT scores.
3) Earn Your Juris Doctorate
Not every type of judgeship requires that you get a law degree and become a lawyer. But if you want to qualify to become a judge in a higher court, you must attend an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school and get a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
A full-time J.D. degree program takes three years to complete. While a part-time program can take four years, there are also accelerated programs that take two years.
In law school, you?ll learn about torts, contracts, civil procedure, criminal law, ethics, and everything else you need to practice law. You can also pick up specialized courses in family law, tax law, or other aspects of the law that interest you.
4) Pass the Bar Exam
After graduating from law school with your J.D., the next step is to take the bar exam. You will complete the bar exam in the state where you intend to practice and hope to become a judge. After passing the bar exam in your chosen state, you are then officially an attorney licensed to practice.
5) Practice as an Attorney
Not every type of judgeship requires that you have experience as an attorney, but it helps to have experience. For example, you can practice as an attorney in a law firm, on your own as a sole practitioner, or by representing the government as a public prosecutor.
The amount of experience required to qualify for a judgeship depends on the state and the type of judgeship. However, in most cases, you should have an impressive history of legal practice before you qualify for a judgeship nomination.
6) Obtain a Judgeship
Prospective judges only obtain judgeship by appointment or election. To be eligible, you first must possess the minimum requirements for the said judgeship in that state. In most states, attorneys can submit themselves to a nomination committee to be considered for a judgeship. To apply for a judgeship, you must submit your name and application (if applicable) to a judicial nominating commission for consideration.
How Do You Apply to be a Judge?
Let?s take a look at California?s application as an example.
On the application, you?ll be asked about your education, work history, and business interests. You?ll also be asked to provide references.
The following are some question examples from California?s application for appointment as a judge of the superior court:
- Describe your personal background, character, personality traits, professional and life experiences, education, training, and/or skills that make you qualified and suitable for a judicial appointment and which you believe enrich your ability to serve as a judge.
- What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
- For the past five years, list the five most significant matters you have resolved without trial (e.g., by dispositive motion, settlement, negotiation). For each matter, provide the name of the entity or tribunal involved, case name, type and description of case, dates involved, party you represented, name of the judge or other decision-maker, resolution or disposition, names, current addresses and telephone numbers of counsel for the other parties, and the names, current addresses and telephone numbers of co-counsel, if applicable.
You can also improve your chances of getting appointed or elected by canvassing or lobbying voters and politicians for the position, as long as you respect the confines of the law. Visit your state government?s website for application requirements specific to your state.
Politicians may also recommend you for the position. Support from notable politicians goes a long way in upping your chances of getting an appointment. Federal judges?like Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges?are only nominated by the President. The Senate then confirms nominees for a life term.
Your application will then be reviewed. If you?re deemed the best candidate, you?ll be appointed to the bench by the state Governor.
Unlike federal judges, this is not a lifetime appointment. At the next election in California, for instance, voters will vote to confirm the nomination. If confirmed by the electorate, the California State Supreme Court justices and judges in the State Courts of Appeals will serve for 12 years before being elected to retain their positions. California Superior Court justices serve six-year terms.
There are only so many judgeships available, and it?s all about the timing. If a judge retires, leaving a sudden vacancy, a replacement will be appointed. If a judge must be elected to retain their position, any individual may challenge them in an election, just like in any political campaign.
7) Complete Your Training
After being appointed or elected, you may have to complete training programs or attend state-administered introductory lectures provided by the A.B.A., National Center for State Courts, National Judicial College, or other legal organizations.
You may also be required to complete ongoing education courses throughout your career as a judge. This requirement is to ensure you stay updated on changes to the law, especially within your jurisdiction.
What?s the Fastest Way to Become a Judge?
To speed up your career journey to becoming a judge, you can shave off some time by proceeding with the following steps.
Speed up your time in law school by opting for an accelerated J.D. program. These programs typically only take two years instead of three, so you can speed up your education by an entire year.
You may also reduce the time you spend receiving your undergraduate degree by opting for a ?3+3 J.D.? program. Also called a Bachelor of Arts to Juris Doctor (B.A.-J.D.) program, participating in this means that you can complete your first year of law-school courses during your fourth undergraduate year. Getting this head start enables you to complete undergrad studies and law school in six years instead of seven.
After graduating from law school and passing the bar exam in your chosen state, we recommend that you acquire as much legal experience as you can and as fast as possible. You can practice law as a sole practitioner, under the umbrella of a larger law firm, or as a public prosecutor. The more law experience you have, the more judgeship opportunities are available to you.
With the right political support, you can get nominated or elected for a judgeship in less time than most. Rub shoulders with the right politicians, who can nominate you for a judgeship. Alternatively, participate in community affairs to garner the support of the voters within the jurisdiction where you want to be a judge.
The sooner you start garnering political support, the sooner you may reach your goal.
Clerk for a Judge
After finishing law school and passing the bar, get a few years of experience under your belt, ideally in the judicial branch as a clerk. A clerk conducts legal research and drafts opinions for the judge, among other assistant duties.
To find a federal clerkship (or appellate attorney position), go to the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review.
To find a state clerkship, visit your state?s judicial website.
Work in the Judicial Branch
You don?t necessarily need to clerk for a judge to become one. You can parlay other legal experience in the judiciary into a job as a judge.
Search for jobs in federal courts, federal public defender organizations, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts here.
Do You Need to Be a Lawyer to Become a Judge?
You don?t need a special license to become a judge. As long as you pass the bar exam and have experience practicing law in the state where you?re seeking an appointment, you are qualified.
But note that the specific requirements and qualifications for a judgeship vary from state to state. For example, most states have a minimum and a maximum age to qualify for judgeship.
In Texas, for example, you won?t qualify to be a criminal appeals-court judge if you are younger than 35 years old and have less than ten years of experience as a lawyer or judge. Similarly, you won?t qualify to be a county criminal-court judge in Texas if you are younger than 25 and have fewer than four years of experience practicing law.
Simply put, the type of judge and location you want to serve determines what sort of experience or other qualifications you must meet. For example, there are no legally established qualifications for justices serving on some federal courts, circuit courts, and district courts.
In 24 states in the U.S., a person without prior legal experience can become a judge and preside over some judicial cases. In Pennsylvania, for example, magisterial district-court judges don?t have to take the state?s bar exam. But they preside only over traffic violations, misdemeanor criminal charges, and other low-level cases.
Job Opportunities and Career Outlook for Judges
If you become a judge, you?ll have various job opportunities at all levels of the judiciary system. But these opportunities are limited. The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that the number of new job opportunities for judges in the U.S. will be fewer in the future.
The reason there are so few judgeship positions is because the number of courts that judges preside over in the U.S. is fixed. Some of the judges presiding over these courts have a lifetime appointment to the position, which means the job won?t be open to a new judge until the sitting judge resigns or dies.
Other judge positions have renewable or fixed terms. If a judge appointed for a renewable term gets renewed, the position remains occupied. Judges in a fixed-term arrangement hold their position until they choose to resign, retire, or their term expires.
Judges are either elected or appointed, but neither can happen unless there is a vacancy to fill. It?s an extremely competitive profession, and aspiring judges can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning to be elected.
To run for an election as a judge, you may have to register with a political party, and you must raise money for your campaign. Having powerful political backers, financiers, and a good reputation in your community will significantly increase your chances of winning an election or being appointed.
In addition to getting appointed as a new judge, sitting judges can be upwardly mobile in their careers by getting appointed to a higher court with broader jurisdiction. For example, a high court judge can get appointed to an appeals court or higher.
If judges elect to retire or their term in office expires, they can continue in the legal industry by teaching law school or maintaining an attorney practice.
Once you?ve made it onto the bench, you?ll be compensated very well.
Per USCourts.gov, Associate Justices on the Supreme Court make $268,300/year, and the Chief Justice makes $280,500/year.
State judge salaries will vary by state; click here for all judicial salaries listed by average for each state. Currently, the median salary for a superior court judge in the U.S. is $173,872. But depending on the state, salaries can be as low as $129,625 in Maine and as high as $230,750 in California.
Judges serve one of the most important roles in the legal system. This position of power comes with the heavy responsibility of affecting citizens? and entire generation?s lives. The work you do as a judge has the potential to impact society as a whole. If you?re up for the challenge, this may be the right legal career path for you!
Key Skills Required for Judges
Judges perform a variety of functions. Having the following skills will make you a prime candidate for a judgeship and equip you to excel at the job:
- Critical Thinking
- Judgment and Decision Making
- Active Learning
- Active Listening
- Complex Problem Solving
- Social Perceptiveness
- Speaking and Writing
- Reading Comprehension
- Time Management
Judges require all of these skills, many of which they learn before and during law school. But there are other skills a judge can gain to boost on-the-job efficiency, including:
Technology Skills: A judge who is open to using computers, software, and smart technology will be better equipped to handle legal matters. Various technologies are now available for researching the law, making recordings, managing cases, and more. With these tools, you can handle cases faster, more accurately, and with less reliance on physical documents.
Listening and Comprehension: A judge must be able to listen to two sides of a case and hand down a ruling based on the evidence presented. Without solid listening and comprehension skills, a judge?s job would be impossible. A judge must also be able to listen impartially and make decisions based on understood facts, not emotions or prejudices.
Patience: Court proceedings can drag on for a long time, sometimes years. A judge must have the patience to see the case to the end and give everyone equal opportunity to represent their side of the case.
Written and Verbal Communication: Lawyers present a horde of detailed information during a court case. So, judges must be able to record the pertinent details clearly. But it?s not just about writing. Reading comprehension is also essential because the evidence will usually come in written documents that a judge must read and understand quickly. A judge must also be able to communicate orally effectively. Not doing so could lead to miscommunications during a court proceeding or a disorderly court, neither of which will reflect well on a judge?s competence.
Logical Thinking: Judges must apply the facts to the pertinent laws. Tying courtroom and legal documentation to the rules of law in every situation is a skill you?ll learn in law school and hone over years of legal practice. It?s one of the reasons that only licensed lawyers with legal experience get appointed to certain judgeships.
Types of Judges
There are several types of judgeship positions, and we?ve listed them all here with a brief overview of the differences between each type.
State judges are typically appointed by the Governor or elected by the public. They deal with issues at the state level like state laws and following the state constitution, and presiding over criminal, probate, contract, personal injury, and other types of cases.
Known as Superior Court Judges, Trial Judges, or Circuit Court Judges, these judges are often divided into departments like:
- Family Court
- Traffic Court
- Immigration Court
- Juvenile Court
- Probate Court
From low to high, there are three main types of federal judges, all of whom are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life sentence, per Article III of the Constitution. They preside over cases that deal with the constitutionality of a law, disputes between states, bankruptcy, and habeas corpus issues, among others.
U.S. District Court Judge
The United States legal system is comprised of 94 districts across all 50 states. The bigger the state, the more districts it has. Each district has its own set of judges based on size and population. Judges at this level preside over trials in which a jury delivers a verdict or renders a verdict when a jury is not present.
Court of Appeals Judge
The US has 13 Courts of Appeals. When a defendant does not agree with the outcome of a trial in a U.S. District Court, they can appeal, sending it to a Court of Appeals. This is not a do-over for the prosecution or defense, as no witnesses are re-heard, and no evidence is re-submitted. Instead, a Court of Appeals judge simply reviews the procedures of the trial at the U.S. District Court level and decides whether the trial was fair and the verdict stands, or the trial was unfair, and the case will be retried or a plea negotiated.
U.S. Supreme Court Judge
Nine justices make up the bench of the highest court in our country, the Supreme Court. If a defendant loses his or her appeal in a Court of Appeals, the case can be appealed again to the Supreme Court. However, it?s important to know that not all cases that are submitted to the Supreme Court for appeal will be taken on. About 7,000 cases are submitted to the Supreme Court each year, but the Supreme Court only agrees to review about 130 of them and some of those without even hearing an argument.
We?ve given you a lot to think about here if you?re interested in becoming a judge in the United States someday. Remember, though, that your journey to becoming a judge will depend on the type of judge you want to be and the state in which you?d like to serve.
As long as you have the minimum requirements specified by the state where you want to serve as a judge, it?s an entirely achievable career goal. It may just take more time than you anticipated, or less if you know the right people.