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Judge How to become, career path, income potential

What is a judge?

The court of law is a crucial part of our society. Lawyers argue their cases in front of a judge, while the judge ensures that everyone follows the rules of the courtroom and hears both sides. If there is a jury, the judge makes sure they understand the rules and process of deciding a case.

Judges are an important part of our criminal justice system. They preside over hearings and trials in the courtroom. If things start to get heated or escalate in the courtroom, the judge is responsible for maintaining order and keeping things moving forward productively and fairly. Judges often give instructions to the parties participating in the trial. They are responsible for keeping everything on track.

In some cases, there will be no jury, and the judge will be responsible for deciding the case. Even when there is a jury deciding the case, the judge will decide the sentence for the crime. Managing the people in the courtroom and acting as the referee is a big part of a judge’s responsibilities. They will need to help facilitate productive arguments and ensure everyone knows what they are supposed to do in the courtroom.

There are many levels of judges, from local city and municipal courts to the highest court of the United States Supreme Court. Some judges serve a lifetime appointment, while others may be up for election every few years. With the proper education and experience, you can submit your name for one of the judgeships where you live. This guide dives into more detail on the process of becoming a judge.

Qualifications and eligibility

To become a judge, completing all the required education is important. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, judges also need a law degree. While the constitution doesn’t lay out a long list of requirements to become a judge, it’s important to have some experience trying cases if you want to be elected or appointed as a judge. 

Each state sets its requirements for judges, but aspiring judges generally need to be licensed to practice law. It’s also important to live in the region where they plan to work and are registered to vote. 

Work environment

Judges work in courtrooms and offices. If they are working on a trial, they need to sit for long periods of time and pay close attention to the arguments happening. When they are not presiding over a trial, they are likely researching and writing decisions in an office. 

Typical work hours

Judges typically work eight hours a day during daytime hours. There are some situations where judges need to issue rulings at any time of day. Some courts only hear arguments for certain periods during the year, but even when the judges aren’t in court, they are still working on decisions. 

Income

The salaries for judges depend on the level of the court they preside over and some geographical factors. Looking at the median annual wages for each level of the court, here is how they stack up against each other.

  • Federal government – $130,210
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals – $80,620
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals – $78,300

Salaries also vary based on where you live because of cost of living differences and the demand for the role. Here are the five top-paying states for judges:

  • Hawaii – $213,120
  • Illinois – $210,120
  • California – $206,790
  • Rhode Island – $195,210
  • Connecticut – $174,180

Steps to become a judge

1. Earn your bachelor’s degree

The first step to becoming a judge is earning your bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Majors can vary a bit depending on your interest. Some common choices for pre-law students are political science, philosophy, and criminology.

2. Complete training and prepare for law school

  • Review the basics of criminal justice with the Introduction to Criminology: Explaining Crime from Udemy. The class will help you understand the terms in criminal psychology and the sociology of crime. You’ll have a better grasp of why people commit crimes. 
  • An Introduction to American Law is a course that covers the six main areas of American law, including tort law, contract law, property, constitutional law, criminal law, and civil procedure. It’s a great introduction to the complexities when applying the law in different settings.
  • Gain a better understanding of things outside the United States with the course, Introduction to International Law. Learn about the international courts and tribunals, their history, and issues with jurisdictions. 
  • Prep for law school with the course, A Law Student’s Toolkit from Coursera. It’s an introduction to the terminology, tools, and concerts you will use repeatedly. Learn how to follow arguments, and make your own arguments. 
  • Do a deeper dive into the Constitution with the course, A Guide to American Constitutional Law, from Udemy. You’ll review how the Constitution impacts modern American life, how the elections work for the president, abortion rights, and other monumental cases.
  • Corporate and Business Law covers all the basics of corporate law and offers a great introduction to see if you want to pursue this type of law career. Understand companies’ finances, corporate crimes, and fraud cases, and learn to apply the law to employment relationships. 
  • Coursera offers American Contract Law I, which provides an overview of contract law in the United States. Understand how contracts are created and the importance of offers and acceptance. 
  • The Law of Torts Made Simple is a course that dives into the law of torts to help you understand the topics and see real examples and case illustrations. Build a strong foundation in the subject and learn to apply legal concepts to real-life case situations. 
  • The Coursera class, International Law in Action: A Guide to the International Courts and Tribunals in the Hague, looks at the institutions that address contemporary global problems. Learn about the International Court of Justice and its origins and current responsibilities.
  • When you’re ready to apply to law school, take the Evidence Rule Statements for Bar Exam and Law School Exam. This course helps you learn to write short essays on evidence substantive law and draft your own rule statements. It helps prepare you for the law school exam and the bar exam.

3. Take the LSAT exam

Once you feel confident in your knowledge, sign up for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This standardized test measures your reading comprehension, logic, and verbal reasoning. You’ll go through four different sections, each for about 35 minutes, and a writing section. The test is offered six times a year, and students can take the test up to three times a year. Law schools will use GPA and LSAT scores to determine admission.

4. Attend law school and earn your Juris Doctor

Complete the coursework at law school to earn your Juris Doctor. This is the graduate professional degree in law. Law school is three years, and it’s the minimal level of education for lawyers. The first year covers the foundational law courses and the following years offer courses that go further into more specific topics. Some law schools require a capstone project to showcase what you’ve learned. 

5. Pass the bar exam

Once law school is complete, you’ll need to pass the bar exam to practice law and become an attorney. Each state and territory administers its own test. The exam is two days long. Answer multiple-choice questions and write essays. Take time to study for this exam once you’ve graduated from law school to prepare. Around 60% of test takers pass the bar, so studying and fully preparing for the exam is important.

6. Gain experience

Trial experience is important for aspiring judges. Become an attorney and gain experience litigating and defending in a courtroom. Most states require at least ten years of legal practice before becoming a judge. Another role is a judicial clerk. Clerks assist with counsel and research for judges. It’s a critical connection that can be used to help network and be considered for future openings on the bench. 

7. Obtain a judgeship by election or appointment

Once you’ve completed the required education and experience, there are three ways to become a judge. Elections take place for many judge positions, and the people that live in the area will vote on the ballot. Temporary appointments happen for any judgeships that open unexpectedly. These appointments last until an election can happen. Appointments by a governor or president fill some judgeships. 

8. Complete judgeship training

Once you’ve been selected to become a judge, there is training to go through before you take your seat on the bench. Even once you’ve become a judge, there will be some ongoing training to complete so you can stay on top of laws that are changing and decisions that higher courts have made.

Types of judges

There are many different courtrooms, and each has a judge that rules over the proceedings. There are criminal courts, civil courts, and appellate courts. The judge’s role is similar in each situation.

Federal courts are split into a few different types of courts, each with its purpose. The district courts handle most of the trials. A magistrate handles certain pre-trial and post-trial situations and handles some minor offenses. The circuit court has appellate judges and helps with appeals within its jurisdiction. The highest level of the federal court is the United States Supreme Court. The special article I courts each have their own specialties, like tax court and bankruptcy court.

Within the state court system, there is a similar breakdown. The municipal courts enforce city and municipal ordinances and hear cases dealing with those. The state magistrate helps with small claims and issuing warrants. The superior court presides over trial courts of general jurisdiction. Similar to the federal, there are also state appellate courts and a state supreme court.

Even judges work as Justices of the Peace and help with weddings, and grant licenses in rural areas. The judge has the same roles at every level and is in charge of the court. 

Tips for becoming a judge

Becoming a judge is a long and challenging process, but it’s a great career. In addition to the education and experience listed above, there are other tips to help you become a judge.

  • Apply for a judicial clerkship. This is a one- to two-year position where you’ll assist judges with research and administrative work. 
  • Network with key players in the legal field. Appointments happen with input from current and past judges, so people must know who you are and what your background is. Don’t just focus on judges, be kind and get to know court reporters, assistants, and other attorneys.
  • Spend as much time as possible in the courtroom. Arguing cases as an attorney will give you a front-row seat to what the judge does. People will be able to get to know you and your style. 
  • Develop empathy. Judges need to be able to listen to people from all different walks of life and remain patient and fair.
  • Keep a low profile online. When becoming a judge, social media and personal life choices may be scrutinized, so keep things clean and be aware of your words and actions.
  • Learn how to raise money for campaigns. Many judges are selected through local elections, and you may need to raise money to run a successful campaign. Spend time working for political campaigns to learn how this works.
  • Never stop learning and reading. Society is constantly changing and updating laws. It’s important for judges to stay up to date on current events and how things might impact the court of law.

Position trends

Employment for judges isn’t predicted to change much over the next decade. However, the positions open often as people retire or leave their positions. You may apply multiple times before being selected to fill an opening. There has been an increase in cases that are settled outside of court, but also an increase in demand for immigration cases. Any growth in job openings would require a change in the government budgets, so it’s unlikely that the position will grow too much.

Career path

Becoming a judge takes a lot of time; once you reach that level, you will likely stay in the role until you retire. There are different levels of courts, so there is room for advancement if you want to work towards that.

For example, in the federal court system, there are three levels. District courts deal with the majority of trials. Circuit courts handle the first level of appeals and are the next level up. Finally, the United States Supreme Court is the final level of appeal and the highest court in the country.

1. What is the most complex piece of litigation you’ve ever worked on?

It’s important for judges to have some experience in the courtroom on a variety of different cases. Use this opportunity to talk about some of the complex cases you’ve worked on and how you managed to research and build your argument. 

2. Judges typically have a team of people to assist. What experience do you have managing people?

Most judges have assistants and clerks that work for them. Having some experience managing people is a plus. If you don’t have anything on your resume, you could at least prepare by taking a course on management, so you show that you’re willing to work to be a great leader.

3. What pro bono work or community service have you done in your career?

Judges need to be dialed into the community, especially the positions that are elected by the people. Highlight some of the work you’ve done to help those less fortunate in your community. If you haven’t done any pro bono work during your law career, put some volunteer work on the calendar and get out in your community. 

4. Are you prepared to restrict your social media use and follow the ethics guidelines for this role?

Judges will often have their backgrounds explored a bit before being appointed. Confirmation hearings for federal judges may cover any questionable behaviors or opinions shared online in the past. Judges need to keep a clear record.

5. How do you keep up with changing laws and understand things you don’t have experience in?

Continuing education is critical for judges. As laws and regulations change, it’s important for anyone practicing law to stay on top of these changes. Come to your interview with a plan to continue to educate yourself and stay informed. You should be passionate about learning and strive to read and study as much as possible.

6. What do you think about the growing prison population?

Judges are responsible for deciding sentences for anyone that has been convicted. It’s important that they know about the prison system and has strategies for deciding what punishments are appropriate. Understanding the benefits and costs of incarceration can help judges make strong and quality decisions. This should be something that you are very familiar with when applying to be considered for a judgeship.

7. Describe the qualities most important for a judge.

This is a great opportunity to talk about yourself and what would make you a good judge. You should be empathetic, a strong communicator, and be able to concentrate and remain calm for long periods of time. Talk about being an active community member, your strong knowledge of the law, and how it applies to society today.

8. What is your greatest accomplishment in your career so far?

Brag about some of the most successful trials in your career. Did you have a hugely important win in court? Use a question like this to share some of the biggest moments you’ve had in your career. Your answer can go back in time as far as you’d like, but try to pick at least two or three wins.

9. Who are your role models in the legal field?

Judges often worked underneath other judges while preparing for the role. Share one or two people you either worked with or studied that you look up to as role models. You can choose Supreme Court justices or well-known lawyers, but you should also have at least one person you’ve met in person.

10. Have you ever dealt with misconduct in the courtroom? 

One of the most important roles of the judge is to keep order in the courtroom. If you have any experience with things getting out of hand, it might help you be prepared for these moments when you’re a judge. Talk about the situation you were in and how you reacted to it. You can also share how the judge handled it at the moment and what you learned from it.

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