Become a Judge: Education Requirements and Career Roadmap
Research the various requirements necessary to become a judge. Learn about the job description and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a judge.
Should I Become a Judge?
Judges preside over court hearings and trials, supervise legal proceedings and uphold the rights of individuals involved in a legal process. They ensure that trials are conducted according to established rules and procedures, which may include determining how testimony is given and evidence submitted. In non-jury criminal trials, judges decide a defendant's guilt or innocence, and in civil cases rule on liability and compensation.
These professionals can be elected by the public or appointed by governments. Judges often work long hours in preparation for hearings and sometimes must travel for them. They must also be available on call for emergency situations.
The median annual salary for judges as of May 2015 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was $126,930. To become a judge, you first need to earn a Juris Doctorate and you must hold a license to practice law in your state. Experience working as a lawyer is also usually required. The key skills that you need for this career include critical thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and communication.
There are six general steps you must follow to become a judge:
Step 1: Attend Undergraduate School
Aspiring judges can prepare for careers in law during undergraduate school. No specific major of study is required to attend law school, but law students commonly hold degrees in political science, history, business or economics.
Step 2: Earn a Law Degree
Most judges begin their careers as lawyers, and prior legal practice is a prerequisite for many state and federal judgeships. Lawyers must hold Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees, which require completing three years of legal education at a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Some schools offer part-time programs, which typically take four years to complete.
During the first year of study in law school, students typically focus on fundamental law coursework, including contracts, torts, civil procedure and criminal law. In the final two years, students complete elective classes in specialized topics, such as family law and tax law. Clinical internships are also typically available. Completing an internship during law school can provide students with experience working in the field and networking opportunities, which may make it easier to find employment after graduation.
Step 3: Pass a Bar Exam
After earning JD degrees, prospective lawyers must apply for admission to the bar in their state or jurisdiction of practice. Although admission and testing requirements vary, admission to a bar usually requires being licensed, which is gained by passing numerous exams. Exams may include the Multistate Bar Exam, which is a 200-question, 6-hour exam, which tests knowledge of various law fundamentals, such as criminal law, contracts and torts, and ethics exam and a state-specific exam.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) offers past examinations for sale on its website. These exams provide students with an idea of what to expect on the bar examination.
Step 4: Work as an Attorney
Most judges work as attorneys prior to acquiring their judgeship. An attorney represents clients before a court or in other legal proceedings to resolve disputes. Their tasks may include appearing in court, drafting court documents and conducting legal research.
Step 5: Obtain a Judgeship
To become judges, lawyers must be appointed or elected. Lawyers may apply for judgeships by submitting their names for consideration to a judicial nominating commission, or senators or other politicians may recommend them. Generally, becoming nominated for a judgeship requires a strong history of legal practice and support from politicians. Some federal judges are appointed to life-long terms, while other federal, state or local judges have fixed or renewable terms of office. At the end of these terms, judges often either retire or teach law school.
Step 6: Complete Training
After being elected or appointed, judges may be required to complete state-administered introductory training or attend training programs led by legal organizations, such as the ABA, National Judicial College or National Center for State Courts. The Federal Judicial Center provides training programs for federal judges and other federal court personnel. In these programs, trainees participate in court trials, review legal publications and complete online exercises. Most judges are required to complete continuing education courses throughout their careers to stay informed about changes to the law.