Working as a judge is a respectable and noble profession that pays well. Becoming a judge typically takes years of hard work in legal practice.
Most judges serve the community by presiding over court proceedings in the United States at the local, state, and federal levels. Based on jurisdiction, voters may elect a judge, or a government official will appoint them.
A long career path for a judicial appointment will require specific qualifications and licenses to fulfill specific functions, including:
- Supervising legal court proceedings
- Presiding over court hearings and trials
- Upholding the rights of others participating in the legal process in criminal and civil cases
- Ensuring that all matters before the court follow established rules and procedures, including submitting testimony and evidence
Not all judicial court proceedings involve jurors. In some cases, State and local judges will determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence in criminal trials without a jury. In civil court, the judge will use the law to determine compensation and liability for all parties involved in the case.
Some judges teach legal education, and others maintain a law practice while managing a local court system and conducting court trials.
How to Become a Judge
Not all judges have attained their career goal by earning a law degree and becoming an attorney. However, qualifying as a judge for the highest courts requires attending an ABA (American Bar Association) accredited law school and earning a J.D. (Juris Doctor) law degree.
Qualifying for a judgeship in higher courts at the state and federal levels is a long career path that takes years of dedication and commitment, typically starting in high school. The aspiring judge will need to earn a bachelor’s degree, take the LSAT test, apply to multiple law schools, earn their Jurist Doctor degree, pass the bar examination, and begin working in the legal field.
Getting an Undergraduate Degree
The length of time it takes to become a judge through appointment or election can vary based on certain factors. Any aspiring law student must first spend time at a four-year college or university obtaining an undergraduate degree in nearly any field and attain at least a 3.0 GPA.
Many working as legal professionals recommend undergraduates take specific courses and majors to make studying first-year law school easier. These majors could include political science, history, English, and any other pre-law classes that focus on the legal process.
Any graduating student earning a baccalaureate degree with a GPA of 3.7 and higher will likely receive extra consideration when applying to top-ranked schools like Yale, Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Stamford.
Taking the Law School Admission Test
Once the individual has earned their bachelor’s degree, they can study and take the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) before applying to one or more schools. The law school admissions board considering student applicants will want to identify their critical thinking skills to determine how well they will handle their first-year studies.
The board will look at the potential student’s LSAT scores or Graduate Records Examination (GRE) to determine how well they might be handling advanced legal research during their first year at school.
Typically, the admissions boards open their law school programs to students with LSAT scores of 165 or higher. Some community colleges and some universities accept potential law student candidates with an LSAT score of 150.
Generally, the admissions board will evaluate both the potential student candidate’s GPA and LSAT score together as the primary factors when determining who is granted admission into their law school programs. Some colleges and universities have started accepting GREs (Graduate Record Examinations) instead of the Law School Admissions Test.
Some undergraduates will take their LSAT during the summer before their senior year to begin fulfilling their admission and testing requirements. Others will wait until after college graduation or years later when as a working professional.
Applying to Law School
Getting a job in the legal field as a practicing attorney is highly competitive. Prospective law students applying for admission must vie for the limited number of open enrollments every year, especially at a high-ranking law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
Statistics reveal that aspiring judges participating in Early Decision (E.D.) opportunities at some colleges and universities have a better chance of being admitted than those who wait and apply during the standard time (50% vs. 39%).
Prospective law students should consider talking with a pre-law advisor as soon as possible who can help prepare the student’s application, advise about the best undergraduate courses, and prep for the LSAT.
Researching ABA-accredited law schools based on online data and rankings can reveal what colleges and universities are in the student’s preferred locations and the costs each school charges per year or semester.
The aspiring attorney intending to practice law must look for information on what schools they will likely be admitted to, based on their qualifications, scholarships, and ability to obtain student loans if necessary.
Nearly every American Bar Association-accredited law school admissions board will require letters of recommendation from individuals and professors who know the student and speak highly of their academic proficiency. The student will need to craft a personal statement including a communicating narrative about their career path, legal education interests, and what makes them unique.
The student will need to update old resumes and provide access to their transcripts from their undergraduate institution. Sometimes, waiting for a response from one or more universities and colleges can create a stressful environment.
Getting a Jurist Doctor Degree at Law School
Once accepted at law school, the student will likely spend three years or longer obtaining their Juris Doctor law degree. Some colleges and universities offer accelerated programs where the student can earn their degree in approximately 24 months.
Working professionals who must attend law school part-time can take evening and weekend classes at most law schools. Their class study must be completed within 84 months from the time of their admission.
During the first year, the new student learns about contracts, civil procedure, torts, and other fundamentals of law. In the following years, the student will take elective courses involving specialized law fields, including:
- Business Law
- Civil law
- Civil Rights law
- Corporate law
- Criminal justice
- Elder Law
- Environmental Law
- Family law
- International Law
- Real estate
- Social Justice Advocacy
- Tax law
- Other fields
Before the student can begin practicing as an attorney, they must first pass the bar exam in the state or states where they intend to work after earning their Juris Doctor degree.
Passing the Bar Exam
Admission to the bar requires passing the bar exam that is usually given multiple times during the year. The ABA designs the bar examination based on state and federal law.
The law school graduate must take the bar examination in the state they intend to practice law. The pass/fail rate and levels of difficulty in passing the bar examination vary significantly between states.
Typically, the classes taken in law school prepared the aspiring attorney to pass the written and multiple-choice portions of the bar exam (MBE – Multistate Bar Examination). Next, the test taker will need to complete the MEE (Multistate Essay Exam) part of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) and the ethics exam.
The Uniform Bar Exam involves specific subjects, including civil procedure, criminal law and procedure, contracts and sales, constitutional law, evidence, real property, and torts. The essay portion will likely focus on secured transactions, family law, trusts & estates, business organizations or corporations, agency, and partnership.
Practicing as an Attorney
Practicing law in any field can provide the valuable experience necessary for attaining a judgeship. The lawyer will gain experience representing clients in court, handling various legal procedures that resolve disputes and protect their client’s interests.
Most attorneys who have just passed the bar examination will likely take an entry-level law position at a state agency or law firm. Those attorneys on a judgeship career path should spend lots of time participating and watching legal procedures before a judge and jury.
The Best Candidates for Judgeship
A government lawyer or prosecutor is often intimately familiar with how the courtroom operates. While not all judges were once prosecutors, most individuals appointed to judgeships spend years acquiring prosecutorial experience.
Voters usually elect judges, and government officials appoint honorable judges who have honed their critical thinking and logical reasoning skills and displayed their authoritative traits necessary to make tough decisions.
These individuals usually display patience, dignity, and honor under stress. Good judges are typically empathetic to a wide array of individuals with legal issues. Good judges are often good listeners who consider every aspect of an argument before deciding how to impart justice equally under the law.
Applying for Judgeship
Pursuing a judgeship usually requires applying through a judicial nominating commission. Other times, potential candidates are recommended by politicians or the National Judicial College and other legal organizations.
The application process can be lengthy and tedious based on the jurisdiction. The state or federal government may need aspiring judges to fill a wide array of judgeships, including:
- Administrative law judges
- Appeals judge
- Bankruptcy judges
- Circuit Court judges
- District Court judge
- Federal judges
- General sessions judges
- Intermediate state court trial judges
- Juvenile Court judges
- Magistrate judges
- Municipal court judges
- Senior judges
- State appellate court judges
- State magistrate judges
- Superior Court judges
- Supreme Court judge (Justice)
Many judgeships in state courts are filled by visiting judges. The state often re-appoints recalled judges who are called back to provide judicial assistance after retiring.
Obtaining a Judgeship
All federal Justices and some judges are appointed to lifelong terms. However, many local, state and federal judges have renewable or fixed terms of office. Before applying, the potential judicial candidate should disclose any past personal indiscretion or information that will likely come to light in the media.
The potential candidate will likely be asked about their past legal cases, lawsuits, counseling, and treatment they received for drug abuse, substance abuse, or other issues. The candidate should send their application to the Bar
Association for evaluation. The bar might recommend the candidate for a judgeship or not.
Many applicants seeking to meet their career goals are not appointed or elected for judgeship and might need to try multiple times for success.
How to Become a Judge FAQs
Is becoming a judge a good career choice?
Working as a judge is a lucrative and prestigious calling that usually offers extensive insurance benefits, sick leave, vacation time, and a pension after retirement. The federal and state government offer their elected and appointed judges immunity protection to avoid facing civil lawsuits for official conduct.
Most judges in their community are typically highly respected and considered honorable, thoughtful, fair, wise, and experienced in numerous law fields, including those who work in superior and district courts.
Is it hard to become a judge?
Choosing judgeship is a long and challenging journey requiring dedication to hard work and years of study. Individuals who learn how to become judges recognize they’ll need diligence in patients to achieve their career goal of administering justice to the guilty and innocent.
Potential judicial applicants must earn an undergraduate degree, pass the LSAT tests, be admitted to law degree programs, and earned good grades to earn a law degree. The graduated law student must become an attorney to gain experience to apply for a judgeship.
Is a judge’s life stressful?
Working as a judge, especially in the higher courts, can be highly stressful, especially when the judge has a heavy caseload. Many trial judges must review and comprehend complex case studies when facing difficult cases involving horrific crimes and innocent people.
Often, the judicial system becomes complicated when counsel is inadequately trained or ill-prepared to handle challenging cases and misrepresent their party. The judge may preside over a highly publicized case and make decisions requiring their judicial discretion.
How much do judges earn?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a judge’s salary is similar to others in the legal profession. High-level judges earn approximately $200,000 a year on average or about $100 per hour for their full-time work.
Mid-level judges earn slightly less at about $193,000 on average or approximately $93 per hour. Junior-level judges earn approximately $185,000 a year, where a starting-level judge, like a magistrate judge, earns about $94,000 on average.
Managing a Legal Career As a Judge
Becoming a judge is just the beginning of a new career and shows the rewards acquired through years of commitment and self-discipline have been achieved. Working as an instrument of justice for the community protects innocent people and holds guilty people accountable.
Once appointed or elected to the judgeship, the new judge must complete specific seminars and training programs to begin practicing as a judge. The Federal Judicial Center provides extensive training for newly appointed or elected federal judges.
Judicial trainees might receive additional educational training on court trials, hearings, and other legal proceedings. The judge will likely need to complete judicial exercises and review legal publications as a part of their training.
Maintaining a judgeship requires continuing education courses and maintaining an active State Bar membership.