Career Development

How to Become a Judge Step By Step: Your Career Guide

July 23, 2021

Judges are legal professionals who can pursue a variety of career paths. Becoming a judge involves extensive education and experience to develop the necessary skills, knowledge and abilities involved with the job. Learning how to become a judge can help you determine if it's the right career path for you. In this article, we'll discuss the responsibilities of a judge, how to become one and answer some frequently asked questions regarding this profession.

What does a judge do?

A judge oversees a trial or hearing, serving as an impartial referee and making decisions on which arguments, questions and evidence are admissible. Judges may determine the extent of punishments levied during trials. In some trials, a judge is also responsible for handing in a ruling in the case. Although many judges hear cases alone, some judges serve on courts that feature multiple 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.

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The average salary for a judge

Judges in the United States make an average of $86,927 per year. Salaries can range from $14,000 to $222,000 per year. This information was gathered by Indeed over the past 36 months from 170 employees, users and job advertisements. Judges are usually full-time employees, though part-time positions are occasionally available.

How to become a judge

There is a relatively set path for becoming a judge, including the following steps:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree
  2. Take the Law School Admission Test
  3. Attend law school and earn a Juris Doctorate
  4. Pass the bar exam
  5. Create your resume
  6. Consider becoming a clerk
  7. Practice law
  8. Earn your judgeship

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

You'll need to earn a bachelor's degree to apply for law school. Although some schools 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 your local court system. You can also join extracurricular activities—such as a debate club—to be a more appealing law school candidate.

2. Take the Law School Admission Test

The LSAT is an exam used by law schools during the admissions process, commonly taken by undergraduate students late in their junior year or at the very start of 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 assist you in gaining admission into a college of your choice.

3. Attend law school and earn a Juris doctorate

After taking the LSAT and receiving your scores, you can begin applying to law schools. A standard law school education consists of three years of courses where you will receive advanced instruction in the legal process. In your final year of law school, you can choose to complete coursework on subjects that interest you, such as family or environmental law. Completing law school earns your Juris Doctorate. To practice law in the United States, you must earn a J.D. from an American Bar Association-approved law school.

4. Pass the bar exam

To practice law in a particular state, you must pass that state's bar exam. The exam commonly takes multiple days to complete and consists of two parts, an essay section and the Multistate Bar Examination. 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.

The difficulty and exact makeup of the first portion of a bar certification vary by state, and not all states require applicants to take the MBE. For example, California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia all allow bar applicants to study under a practicing attorney or judge instead of attending law school. As a result of these differing characteristics, a lawyer practicing in one state may be required to complete further testing in order to practice in a new 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 with 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 the middle of a term, 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 away.

  • Appointed. Many judicial seats are appointed by executives, such as governors or the President of the United States. For federal seats, appointments are often lifetime seats. The process for appointment usually starts with being placed on a shortlist which is 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.

Frequently asked questions 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?
  • How long does a judge serve for?
  • What are the requirements to be a judge?
  • What are the most important skills for a judge to possess?
  • Do politics matter when appointing a judge?

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, a lawyer 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. Lawyers or attorneys often earn a judgeship after multiple decades of trial experience.

How long does a judge serve for?

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 needing to seek reelection 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 operating independently of any personal politics, and instead following the rule of law. While an elected official will often screen potential nominees for positions and seek judges they think are 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 10 options to start your career:

1. Prosecuting attorney

2. Paralegal

3. Courtroom interpreter

4. Defense attorney

5. Bailiff

6. Legal clerk

7. Associate judge

8. Court reporter

9. Correctional officer

10. Case administrator

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