How to Become a Magistrate Judge: Career Guide

Find out how to become a magistrate judge. Research the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in judicial law.

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  • 0:00 Become a Magistrate Judge
  • 0:40 Career Requirements
  • 1:02 Career Steps to Follow

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Become a Magistrate Judge

Magistrate judges can preside over both federal and state court cases. At the state or county level, magistrate judges may also be called justices of the peace, municipal court judges, magistrates, or county court judges. The Federal Judicial Center indicates that magistrate judges preside over many different types of legal cases, although federal magistrate judges do not preside over felony trials. Travel may be required to appear in the appropriate courts. This is a demanding position, and judges must pay undivided attention to proceedings for extended periods of time.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Juris Doctor (JD)
Degree Field Law
Experience Several years' experience as a lawyer or in legal proceedings
Licensure State license to practice law
Key Skills Listening, reading, writing, decision-making, and critical-thinking skills; extensive knowledge of state and federal law and an understanding of legal precedents
Salary $63,674 (2016 median for all magistrate judges)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Federal Judicial Center, State Judicial Courts,

Key skills needed to be a magistrate judge include listening, reading, writing, decision-making, and critical-thinking skills. You also need extensive knowledge of state and federal law and an understanding of legal precedents. reported that magistrate judges earned a median wage of $63,674 in January 2016.

Career Steps to Follow

There are several steps one must follow to become a magistrate judge. We'll now go over each of them in detail.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

To be accepted into law school, an individual must first obtain a bachelor's degree. Undergraduate students who plan to go to law school can earn their bachelor's degree in any field, but the American Bar Association notes that traditional undergraduate fields of study for aspiring lawyers emphasize research, analysis, critical reading, communication, public speaking, and writing skills. Common pre-law fields of study include philosophy, history, English, political science, economics, and business. Classes in criminal justice or law enforcement may also prove useful.

It's also important to prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which is needed to gain entry into law school. The LSAT verifies how well students can read and comprehend information, analyze critical data, and make logical decisions. Those who do not pass the test the first time are able to repeat it, and individuals who want to improve their scores can also retake the exam up to three times every two years.

Step 2: Complete Law School

It usually takes three years to complete law school and earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Law school students are often required to complete certain core classes, such as criminal law and legal ethics. Students choose the bulk of their law school courses in accordance with their career goals or preferred field of law studies. Potential law fields include business law, environmental law, international law, and public rights law.

Success Tip:

Participate in clinical education programs that allow law students to work under the close supervision of experienced lawyers. During these supervised clinical experiences, many law students provide pro bono (free) legal services to clients. Clinical programs allow students to learn about the professional relationships between lawyers and clients, as well as between lawyers and other court officials. Clinical programs can also help students choose a preferred legal field of specialty.

Step 3: Become a Lawyer

Not all states require magistrate judges to become lawyers prior to becoming judges. However, federal magistrate judges do have to be lawyers first. To become a lawyer requires earning a JD degree from an accredited institution and becoming licensed through the state. The licensing process requires passing the state's legal bar exam in each state a person wants to practice law. As part of the licensing process, applicants usually have to prove that they are ethical citizens with clean backgrounds. Some states may have additional requirements.

After becoming a licensed lawyer, individuals must gain legal experience to become a judge. Entry-level lawyers at law firms are often referred to as associates, and tend to work with well-accomplished lawyers who can provide guidance and instruction. Associates often develop their skills for several years before they start their own law firms or become lawyers for established businesses. Law firms sometimes offer their experienced lawyers partnership positions, which means a lawyer would be a partial owner of the law firm.

Step 4: Gain Political Support

The position of magistrate judge is often an appointed or elected position. Legal professionals who want to become magistrate judges may want to consider obtaining political support early on, although it is not required. Professionals can obtain political support in many ways, such as by networking with political parties, supporting community law enforcement, or affiliating with nonprofit organizations.

Step 5: Obtain and Maintain a Magistrate Judge Position

Upon becoming a magistrate judge, individuals may have to complete continuing education courses every few years in order to maintain judgeship positions. Likewise, to maintain law licenses, many state bar associations have license renewal requirements that may include completing paperwork, paying fees, and participating in continuing education programs.

Step 6: Consider Relocating to a Larger Court System

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, magistrate judges seeking to preside over larger court systems may consider moving to an area with a wider jurisdiction to advance their careers. This may be within a large metropolitan city with a high rate of cases requiring legal proceedings.

To summarize, magistrate judges need a J.D. degree, a state license to practice law, and several years of experience as a lawyer or in legal proceedings.

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