Guide To Become a Judge (With 9 Steps and FAQs)

Updated March 10, 2023

If you have an interest in the legal field, you might pursue a career as a judge. Becoming a judge involves extensive education and experience to develop the necessary skills, knowledge and abilities involved with the job. Learning what’s needed to become a judge can help you determine if it's the right career path for you. 

In this article, we'll discuss the duties of a judge, how to become one through elections or appointments and answer some frequently asked questions regarding this profession.

What does a judge do?

A judge presides over trials or hearings, serving as an impartial referee and making decisions on which arguments, questions and evidence are admissible. They may determine the extent of punishments, or sentences, levied during trials. In some trials, a judge rules on guilt or innocence in place of a jury.  is also responsible for handing in a ruling in the case.

Although many judges hear cases alone, some serve on courts with several judges who all hear the same case at the same time and deliver rulings on majority rule. Many federal judicial positions require legislative confirmation and are lifetime appointments.

Related: 16 Top Political Science Degree Jobs

Average salary for a judge

Judges in the United States make an average of $86,927 per year. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates judge and hearing officer salaries at $128,710 per year. Salary levels vary by experience, type of judgeship, location and employer. Judges are employed full time by local, state or federal governments, though part-time positions are occasionally available. 

How to become a judge

Judges are respected for their experience within the legal field. Many begin their legal careers as defense attorneys or prosecutors. From there, they seek election or appointment to the bench based on their experience, reputation and network within the legal and political community. 

If you have aspirations to be a judge, here are some steps to help you get started on that career path:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

You'll need to earn a bachelor's degree to apply for law school. Although some colleges offer designated pre-law programs, other strong options include criminal justice, political science and philosophy. Coursework should include English, communications, public speaking and sociology to ensure you're prepared for the next steps. 

In addition to relevant coursework, consider completing an internship with a law practice or local court system. You can also join extracurricular activities like the debate club to be a more appealing law school candidate.

Related: 7 Steps to Law School: Pre-Law Requirements

2. Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

The LSAT is an exam used by law schools during the admissions process. It is commonly taken by undergraduate students late in their junior year or early in their senior year. The LSAT has five sections, each lasting for 35 minutes. In addition to an essay portion, there are sections on logical reasoning, logic games, reading comprehension and an experimental section that can contain between 22 and 28 questions each.

A high score on your LSAT can help you gain admission to law school. Some law schools have started accepting Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) instead of the LSAT.

3. Attend law school and earn a Juris Doctor

A standard law school education consists of three years of coursework and advanced instruction in the legal process. Some courses you can expect to take are:

  • Constitutional law

  • Courtroom procedures

  • Criminal law

  • Civil law

  • International law

  • Torts

  • Property and real estate law

In your final year, you can choose to study areas of interest such as family, civil rights or environmental law. Completing law school earns you a Juris Doctor (JD) law degree. To practice law in the United States, you must earn a JD from an American Bar Association-approved law school.

Read more: Law School FAQ: Everything You Need To Know

4. Pass the bar exam

To practice law, you must pass the bar exam in the state where you plan to practice. Some firms hire recent graduates and allow them to study for the bar while earning practical experience. In some states, bar applicants can study under a practicing attorney or judge instead of attending law school.

Keep in mind that lawyers have graduated from law school but haven't passed the bar exam. Attorneys are legal professionals who have passed the bar exam and can act as legal representatives. All attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys, though many use the terms interchangeably.

A bar exam commonly takes multiple days to complete and consists of two parts, an essay section and the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The essays are completed first and may take one or two days of testing. The essays are used to test your ability to understand and apply the law according to federal and state laws. The second part of passing the bar is passing the MBE, a standardized test consisting of 200 questions.

Bar certification varies by state. As a result of these differing requirements, an attorney practicing in one state may have to complete further testing to practice in another state.

5. Create your resume

After completing schooling, you should create your resume. Whether you want to first seek a clerkship or move directly into practicing law at a firm, a strong resume will help you make a positive impression on potential employers. Your resume should be a combination or functional resume, allowing you to put increased attention on your education and any organizations in which you were a member.

You should also take the time to customize your resume before sending it out with an application, altering the contents to focus on the skills and duties from the listing you are applying to. The closer your resume matches a posting, the more likely you are to make a strong first impression with the hiring manager and earn the opportunity to interview for the role.

Read more: How To Make a Resume (With Examples)

6. Consider becoming a clerk

One option following completion of law school is to enter into a judicial clerkship. A clerk assists the judge in their duties, offering assistance and legal counsel when a judge is making decisions and writing their legal opinions. Due to this close relationship with the judge, a clerk can be highly influential compared to peers who proceed directly into practice.

In addition to benefiting professionally, serving as a clerk can also be highly beneficial to your chances of becoming a judge in the future. Clerkships are held in high esteem, so they can help set you apart from other candidates. Time as a clerk is also valuable for networking. When a judge retires from an appointed position, they offer suggestions for who should replace them, and it is common for the judge to suggest attorneys who clerked for them in the past.

Related: 10 Tips To Help You Network Like a Pro

7. Practice law

On nearly all occasions, judges are appointed following legal careers of trying cases. There are several routes available when deciding how to practice law. You may opt to work in public service, either as a prosecutor or a public defender. Another available option is to work for a private law practice. Many law practices specialize in different areas, such as health or bankruptcy law.

Trying cases is a valuable activity if you wish to become a judge. In addition to providing practical experience of courtroom proceedings, trials provide an opportunity to make connections in legal circles. Participating in cases can bring you to the attention of individuals responsible for appointing judges or to the individuals responsible for compiling shortlists for consideration for an appointment.

8. Earn your judgeship

After you have practiced law for at least two years, you can begin looking for opportunities as a judge. Earning a seat as a judge is a competitive goal as many federal judges serve lifetime appointments, restricting the number of available seats. There are three methods of becoming a judge:

  • Election. Local judges often earn their seats by running in elections. The specific rules regarding elections vary by state, with variables including the length of terms, when elections occur and how many terms a judge can serve.

  • Temporary appointment. When an elected judge is removed from the bench or opts to step down in midterm, some states will allow for a replacement to be appointed by the government. Commonly, these seats will remain filled by the appointed judge until the next scheduled election, however, a special election may also be held if the next scheduled election is too far in the future.

  • Appointed. Many judicial seats are appointed by executives, such as governors or the U.S. president. For federal seats, appointments are often lifetime seats. The process for an appointment usually starts with being on a shortlist presented to the individual responsible for the appointment. Shortlist candidates commonly undergo an interview phase before being chosen for the seat, then present themselves to the state or federal legislative body for confirmation hearings.

9: Complete judgeship training

Elected and appointed judges must participate in training programs as required by each state. Judicial education programs are offered by the National Center for State Courts and the American Bar Association. In the majority of states, judges must complete continuing education classes throughout their careers.

FAQs about becoming a judge

If you're interested in becoming a judge, here are some of the most common questions asked about judicial careers:

How long does it take to become a judge?

Since there are many steps to this senior-level role, it is common for the process to take years and often decades. In addition to seven years of schooling following high school, an attorney should expect to spend time trying cases. Although it is possible to be appointed or elected to a position with minimal experience, candidates nominated without at least two years of experience trying cases are rare. Attorneys often earn a judgeship after multiple decades of trial experience.

How long does a judge serve?

The length of a term for a judge varies by the seat they are filling. For elected positions, judges hold their seats for terms between four and 15 years before seeking re-election if they are still eligible at the end of their term. For federal appointments, as well as some state appointments, judges are given lifetime appointments. Such judges continue to serve until they decide to step down.

What are the requirements to be a judge?

Requirements for a judge vary depending on where they serve. Most states require an applicant to have passed the state bar to be eligible for a judgeship. Federal appointments do not have formal requirements.

Although there's no official system, there are many expectations that serve as unofficial requirements for a potential judge, either to get the votes required in an election or to secure confirmation from a legislative body. It is expected that a judicial nominee will show legal competence, possess a track record of trial work as a lawyer and be in good standing with a state bar association.

What are the most important skills for a judge to possess?

To succeed in the role, a judge must possess a mixture of both hard and soft skills, including:

  • Knowledge of local and federal laws: A judge must possess a strong understanding of the law and court procedures to facilitate fair and legal trials and hearings.

  • Critical thinking: A judge must have critical-thinking skills to properly oversee a trial and make decisions in response to legal motions or to hand down a sentence.

  • Empathy: Judges should also have the empathy to relate to all parties to make the right decisions during court proceedings.

  • Communication: A judge must possess strong communication skills, both verbal and written. Communication skills are important in terms of both relaying and receiving information. This minimizes the risk of confusion and misunderstandings in the courtroom.

Do politics matter when appointing a judge?

An appointed judge is tasked with following the rule of law, not personal politics. While an elected official will often screen potential nominees for positions and seek judges likely to agree with them on major issues, a judge should feel no pressure to rule in favor of the party or individual who nominated them.

Jobs similar to judges

If you're interested in a job in legal courts, there are many options from which you can choose. Consider these options to start your career:

  • Prosecuting attorney

  • Paralegal

  • Courtroom interpreter

  • Defense attorney

  • Bailiff

  • Legal clerk

  • Associate judge

  • Court reporter

  • Correctional officer

  • Case administrator

Related: 10 Jobs You Can Find in Law Offices


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