Become a Judge: Education Requirements and Career Roadmap

Aug 24, 2019

Learn all about how to become a judge. Find out the requirements, including how many years it takes to become a judge, and read the job description for this position.

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  • 0:45 Career Requirements
  • 1:16 Education Requirements
  • 2:31 Pass a Bar Exam
  • 3:17 Work as an Attorney
  • 3:35 Obtain a Judgeship
  • 4:12 Complete Training

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Judge Job Duties

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 they 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.

Requirements to Be a Judge

Degree Level Bachelor's degree and Juris Doctorate (required)
Degree Field Undergraduate degrees in political science, history, business or economics are beneficial
Licensure State-specific license to practice law
Experience Lawyer experience generally required
Key Skills Critical thinking, reasoning, decision-making, communication
Median Salary (2018)* $133,920 annually

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

How Many Years does it Take to Become a Judge?

The length of time it takes to complete this career pathway can vary greatly. It typically takes around 7 years to become a lawyer, including four years of undergraduate courses and three years of law school. After that, most people spend several years practicing as an attorney before seeking a judgeship.

How to Become a Judge

The following sections outline the steps one must take 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 prospective law students commonly earn an undergraduate degree in political science, history, business or economics. Law school admissions can be competitive, and it is helpful to prepare during your undergraduate years.

Step 2: Earn a Law Degree

Do you have to be a lawyer to become a judge? In most cases, yes. 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 a J.D. degree, 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 an 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, one must either be appointed or elected. Lawyers may apply for judgeships by submitting their names for consideration to a judicial nominating commission, or they may be recommended by senators or other politicians. 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.

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