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 ensures they understand the rules and process of deciding a case.
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.
Duties and responsibilities
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.
Sometimes, 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.
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.
How to become a judge
In order to become a judge, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:
Step 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.
Step 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 course 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, examines 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.
Step 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 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 in a year. Law schools will use GPA and LSAT scores to determine admission.
Step 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.
Step 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 administer 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.
Step 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.
Step 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.
Step 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.
How much do judges make?
There are many variables that go into determining how much a judge makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top-paying places of employment and specific industries for judges are (shown in annual mean salary):
- Federal government – $130,210
- State government, excluding education and hospitals – $80,620
- Local government, excluding education and hospitals – $78,300
The top-paying states for judges to work in are (shown in annual mean salary):
- Hawaii – $213,120
- Illinois – $210,120
- California – $206,790
- Rhode Island – $195,210
- Connecticut – $174,180
The average national salary for a judge is:
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, help with weddings, and grant licenses in rural areas. The judge has the same roles at every level and controls the court.
Top skills for judges
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.
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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.
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Position trends and outlook
Employment for judges isn’t predicted to change much over the next decade. However, the positions often open 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.
Employment projections for judges
Between 2020 and 2030, judicial workers are projected to grow by 2% as judges preside over legal proceedings and make decisions on cases. In addition, retiring judges and magistrates will open up positions for new judges. As a result of the limited number of openings and the high level of qualifications required, competition for these positions is expected to be fierce.
Judge career tips
Soft skills and traits for judges
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.
Commonly required skills and qualifications
Apply for a judicial clerkship. This is a one- to two-year position where you’ll assist judges with research and administrative work. 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.
Develop a professional network
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 your background. Don’t just focus on judges, be kind and get to know court reporters, assistants, and other attorneys. Here are a couple of networks to explore:
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ)
- National Judicial College (NJC)
- American Judges Association (AJA)
- National Center for State Courts (NCSC)
Where the jobs are
- New Mexico
- New York
- New Jersey
How long does it take to become a judge?
Becoming a judge is a long process. First, you must earn your bachelor’s degree and complete law school, which is about seven years. Then, you’ll have to pass the bar exam and gain at least three or four years of experience as a trial lawyer. Some places require more experience. Once you’ve met the requirements, you can submit your name for consideration. You might need to do those multiple times before landing a job, but once you’ve become a judge, it’s a fantastic career and worth the time invested.
Do judges serve for life?
Each judgeship is a bit different. Federal judges are appointed and can serve as long of a term as they’d like. The only way to remove a federal judge is by impeachment, or they step down to retire.
Are politics involved in appointing judges?
Judges are not politicians and are to remain unbiased in the court. They are often associated with politics because political leaders are responsible for appointing them to the courts. If they aren’t appointed, there is an election, making them feel a little political.
What degrees are required to become a judge?
To become a judge, you must earn your bachelor’s degree and then finish law school to earn a Juris doctor. A bachelor’s degree can be in a variety of subjects. The most common for pre-law students include philosophy, criminal justice, and political science.
Can any lawyer become a judge?
For a lawyer to become a judge, they usually need to be a licensed attorney who has passed the state’s bar exam. It’s also important to have some trial experience arguing cases to understand how the courtroom works and be comfortable presenting in front of a judge and jury.
Should I apply for a judicial clerkship?
Clerkships are a great way for aspiring judges to learn firsthand about the job and build relationships with current judges. Clerks assist with all kinds of research and tasks and provide counsel to judges. Often, judges recommend past clerks for open positions.
Do judges have to pass the bar exam?
Each state and government have its requirements for judges; not all require judges to pass the bar exam, but it is strongly encouraged. Passing the bar shows you possess the essential knowledge to preside over the courtroom.
What kind of judge is responsible for deciding a case?
In most cases, a jury decides the verdict, but there are some courts where the judge decides. Appellate courts are one example of these. The judge hears arguments from both sides and makes the call.
Is it hard to become a judge in the United States?
There are a lot of requirements to become a judge in the United States, including years of education and experience practicing law. Many lawyers work towards becoming judges but may never reach that level. You can be considered for a judgeship with hard work, good networking, and years of experience.
What is the highest level a judge can reach?
The highest level of a judge in the United States is a seat on the United States Supreme Court. This court decides major cases that challenge the Constitution and are appointed by the President of the US.
Is there an age limit for judges?
Each state has different requirements; some require judges to be a certain age before adding their names to the ballot. Some states also set a maximum age for judges; they must retire once they reach this age.