Do you want to be a judge? It's a noble and respected profession, and it pays well. 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. Either the government appoints judges, or voters elect them. The local, state or federal government that employs them pays their salaries.
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 and compensation of the parties to the case.
In addition to managing court proceedings, a judge may also maintain a law practice or teach legal education.
What Does it Take to Become a Judge?
How long it takes to become a judge varies. Factors that will influence the length of time it takes for you 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; the type of judge you want to be; and how long you practiced law.
For most people, it takes about seven years to become a licensed attorney ? four years in college and three in law school ? before passing the bar exam. The timeframe may be longer or shorter for some individuals, depending on their unique circumstances.
For example, a two-year Juris Doctor (JD) program means spending six years instead of seven to become a licensed lawyer. A five-year undergraduate program and three years in law school mean eight years to become a lawyer.
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 be a practicing lawyer before becoming a judge. While you're lobbying for a judgeship, however, you can practice law privately in your own law firm or as another law firm's employee.
You can also work in a government agency, the city or county prosecutor's office, or be a legal consultant. During this time, you can further your legal education by getting a Master of Law degree (LLM) 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 to be a judge, especially if your legal experience covers a lot of trial cases. That said, there are some types of judgeships in some states that don't require legal-practice experience.
How to Become a Judge
With the following steps, you can qualify for a judgeship in the U.S.
Get an Undergraduate Degree
You need an undergraduate degree before you can qualify to get into law school. What you major in doesn't matter much to law schools, so we recommend taking a path about which you are passionate. On the other hand, law schools do care about your grade-point average or GPA. If you graduate with a GPA of at least 3.00-3.50, you'll increase the likelihood of getting into your preferred law school.
Pass the LSAT
To get into most law schools, you need to pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The law school you want to attend will help you identify how high you need to score on the LSAT. 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 upon which law schools depend to determine whether they'll grant you admission to their program. That said, some schools have begun accepting Graduate Record Examinations, or GREs, in place of LSAT scores.
Get a JD
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 (JD) degree.
A full-time JD degree program takes three years to complete. A part-time program can take four years, and 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.
Pass a Bar Exam
After graduating from law school with your JD, the next step is to take the bar exam. You will write the bar exam in the state where you intend to practice and hope to become a judge. After passing the bar exam in a particular state, you officially become an attorney who is licensed to practice within that state.
Practice as an Attorney
Not every type of judgeship requires that you have experience as an attorney. But it helps to have experience. You can practice as an attorney in a law firm, on your own, or 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. In most cases, however, you need to have an impressive history of legal practice before you qualify for a judgeship nomination.
Obtain a Judgeship
You become a judge by being appointed or elected. To be eligible for appointment or election, you have to possess the minimum requirements for the said judgeship in that state.
You apply for a judgeship by submitting your name to a judicial nominating commission for consideration. Politicians also can recommend you for the position. Support from notable politicians goes a long way in upping your chances of getting an appointment.
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.
Get Appointed or Get Elected
Federal judges?like Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges?are nominated by the President. Nominees are then confirmed by the Senate for a life term.
In most states, attorneys can submit themselves to a nomination committee to be considered for a judgeship. Visit your state government's website for application requirements specific to your state.
Take a look at California's requirements 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.
Check out some of the following 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 which 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.
Your application will be reviewed; and, if you're deemed the best candidate, you'll be appointed to the bench by the state Governor.
Unlike federal judges, this appointment is not forever. 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 having to be elected to retain their positions. California Superior Court justices serve six-year terms.
There are only so many judgeships available; and, if you want in, 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 her position, any individual may challenge her in an election, just like in any political campaign.
To be appointed, you have to be experienced and connected.
To be elected, you have to run a smart campaign?which often involves being experienced and connected.
The right path for to the bench for you will depend on your personal history and personality.
After being appointed or elected ? and depending on the judgeship ? you may have to complete training programs or attend state-administered introductory lectures provided by the ABA, 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.
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 JD program. The program takes only two years instead of three, so you shave off an entire year.
You can also reduce the time you spend on an undergraduate degree by opting for a 3+3 JD program. Also called a B.A.-to-J.D. program, participating in this means that during your fourth undergraduate year, you can complete your first year of law-school courses. 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 being called to the bar, we recommend that you acquire as much legal experience as you can and as fast as you can. You can practice law as a self-employed lawyer, under a 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 people within the jurisdiction where you want to be a judge.
The sooner you start garnering political support, the sooner you may reach your goal.
Clerking 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) visit:
To find a state clerkship, visit your state's judicial website.
Working for 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: http://www.uscourts.gov/careers/search-judiciary-jobs
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.
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. A variety of technologies now are 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 effectively orally. 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.
Job Opportunities for Judges
In 2018, the median salary for judges in the U.S. was $133,920 per year. Adjudicators and administrative law judges earned less, about $80,000 to $90,000 a year, respectively.
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 few in the future.
The reason there are so few jobs is that 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 terms and 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 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.
Types of Judges
From low to high, these are the 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 hear 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 render 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, she can appeal, sending it to a Court of Appeals. There is no ?do-over? for the prosecution or defense. No witnesses are re-heard, and no evidence is re-submitted. A judge at this level 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
The highest court in our country, nine justices make up 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. 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 takes on only about 130 of them and some of those without hearing an argument.
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 state constitutions, hearing 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
Compensation for Judges
Once you've made it onto the bench, you'll be compensated very well.
Per CNBC, Associate Justices on the Supreme Court make $255,300/year, and the Chief Justice makes $267,000/year.
State judge salaries will vary by state; but, sticking with California as our example, click here for all judicial salaries listed on the government's website. In 2014, the median salary for a superior court judge was $176,000, as a barometer.
Judges serve one of the most important roles in the legal system. This position of power comes with the heavy responsibility of affecting people's 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!
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.