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How to Become a Judge - A Complete Guide

October 31, 2023
4 min read
Contents

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Reviewed by:

David Merson

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 10/31/23

If you’re interested in learning how to become a judge and join a highly rewarding profession, read on!

You may be considering a career as a judge because you’re a huge fan of Judge Judy or you simply want to have the powerful role of presiding over courts and deciding the fate of those who enter them. Regardless, becoming a judge is an ambitious career that people interested in law dream of pursuing.

While this career is extremely rewarding, the journey to becoming a judge is lengthy and challenging! This guide will break down the path to becoming a judge, the various roles judges play, and how much they typically earn. 

Let’s get started!

How to Become a Judge in 6 Steps

Becoming a judge takes at least nine years. These years consist of the following steps:

Step One: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

graduate holding diploma

A judge’s education begins with an undergraduate degree at an accredited university. This is a basic requirement you’ll need to get into law school, which is step three! 

While it’s often argued that Ivy League schools can better prepare you for the expectations and rigors of law school, you should focus more on maintaining a high GPA than the prestige of your school. Even the highly coveted T14 law schools accept students from low-ranking undergraduate schools if they have stellar applications! 

Choose a major you’re interested in to ensure you can maintain high grades throughout your studies. Focus on developing good communication, research, analytical, and writing skills in your undergrad; these skills will prove useful during law school and your legal career!

Step Two: Write the LSAT

student taking exam on laptop

Another necessary component of the law school application process is the LSAT. While many schools are now accepting the GRE instead, the majority still prefer the LSAT.

Depending on the law school you’d like to apply to, you’ll need to score high to be considered competitive. To do so, ensure you give yourself enough time to study and retake the test if necessary.

Most pre-law students take the LSAT during the summer after their sophomore or junior year when they have more time to dedicate to studying. Creating a comprehensive study plan can help you achieve your target score and get into your dream law school!

Step Three: Go to Law School

Once you’ve gathered all the application materials required to get into law school, you’ll have to complete an accredited JD program to become a lawyer. Having a JD is one of the most important qualifications to be a judge. 

Choose a law school that can provide you with clerkship experience or other experiential learning opportunities to begin filling up your resume and making important connections. 

While top-ranking law schools can typically offer you more resources and opportunities for success, lower-ranking schools can still provide you with the quality education and experiences needed to excel as a lawyer.

Regardless of your school’s ranking, it’s essential you maintain a high GPA throughout your JD and form strong connections with your professors and peers. Once you graduate, having a high GPA and the right connections can help you land a prestigious job at a big law firm.

Step Four: Take the Bar Exam

male student studying for bar exam

The last step before you officially become an attorney is passing the bar exam. The bar exam will assess your legal competencies and knowledge to confirm your ability to practice law. Like the LSAT, in order to achieve a high score, you’ll need to create a good study plan and give yourself enough time to prepare for the exam. 

Step Five: Gain Experience

young lawyers talking in office

All judges are required to have several years of attorney experience to qualify for judgeships. While you may gain experience in the public or private sector, you should pursue positions that can equip you with a diverse set of skills and experience. 

Many judges spend some time working in government courts and have extensive trial experience.

Judges are appointed by higher members of the court, so politics are involved in the process. To increase your chances of being appointed, you must build strong connections with those you work with and network with people involved in the judicial system. 

While some attorneys may be offered judgeships after having as little as two years of legal experience, most states require judges to have at least 10 years of legal practice experience

Step Six: Obtain a Judgeship

judge holding gavel

The final step to becoming a judge is to be appointed or elected. 

Local judges often run in elections to be appointed, while federal judges are chosen by people in power. The President of the United States, and the members of their house, nominate judges to the Supreme Court, court of appeal, and district court before they are confirmed by the Senate or Congress.

What Does a Judge Do?

While judges are often associated with serving sentences and striking their gavels, their roles are much more complicated than this. There are five main tasks judges undertake in each case:

  • Presiding over the court proceedings to ensure order is always maintained 
  • Determining if evidence used by either party is illegal or improper
  • Giving the jury instructions on the laws and standards involved in the case
  • Determining the facts of the case to determine guilt if a jury is not present
  • Determining the sentence for the defendants and sharing it with the courtroom

While fulfilling these roles, a judge must remain completely impartial, which is arguably the hardest part of their job! Judges are supposed to look at only the evidence and laws to determine the outcome of each case, without letting their own opinions and biases influence their decision, a task very few people can do successfully! 

Considering their critical role in the courtroom, you may be wondering, “do judges have to be lawyers?” The simple answer is yes. Most judges have at least 10 years of experience working as lawyers before becoming judges. 

Types of Judges

udge working on laptop in office

While we’ve provided an overview of a judge’s general duties in the courtroom, it’s essential to note there are several different types of judges:

Federal Court Judges

Federal court judges are appointed by the President and Congress and typically handle cases involving the Constitution, treaties, or federal laws. These judges only handle very specific cases and are thus considered to have limited jurisdiction. Federal court judgeships are the hardest to obtain but also the highest paying! 

These judges are appointed for life and are only removed from office for misbehavior or impeachment. 

There are several kinds of federal court judges:

  • Supreme Court Judges: nine judges in total hear cases involving controversies and the Constitution 
  • Court of Appeals Judges: generally sit on a panel of three judges to decide if the law was correctly applied in the district court and to handle certain appeals
  • District Court Judges: handle civil and criminal cases, typically oversee the pretrial process, and conduct trials, including sentencing defendants
  • Senior Judges: judges that are at least 65 years old and have been judges for at least 15 years; they are given a reduced caseload
  • Magistrate Judges: judicial officers who can issue warrants, conduct preliminary court proceedings, and hear cases involving petty offenses
  • Bankruptcy Judges: judicial officers that only handle bankruptcy cases 

State Court Judges

State court judges are elected into office by legislative committees and serve for a set amount of years. State courts handle any case that involves the violation or controversy of state laws. These judges are thus considered to have general jurisdiction because of the range of cases they can preside over. 

State courts most commonly handle cases involving legal matters in the following courts: 

  • Probate court
  • Juvenile court
  • Family court
  • Criminal court

About 90% of all cases are heard in the state court system, meaning there are generally more job openings for state court judges than for federal court judges. 

How Much Do Judges Make?

100 US Dollar Banknotes

We’ve covered how to become a judge and proven it’s an extensive process. Considering these positions require years of education and experience, they are highly prestigious. As such, judges are paid quite handsomely. 

The typical salary for judges as a whole is $148,030 a year. Federal judges earn almost double this average at around $220,000-$290,000 a year, depending on the type of judge they are. 

While these high salaries may further motivate you to become a judge, it’s worth noting that there are limited judgeships available each year. Federal judges serve lifelong sentences, and state court judges typically serve for several years.

Within the next decade, there will only be about 1,900 judgeship openings across the nation, with no projected job growth. The majority of these openings will be for state court judges. 

Regardless of these stats, however, it’s still possible to secure a judgeship if you have the right experience, connections, and dedication! Throughout the nine plus years it will take to become a judge, it’s essential you continue networking and searching for opportunities to expand your skill set and stand out amongst other applicants.

FAQs: Becoming a Judge

For any remaining questions on how to become a judge, read on to find your answers!

1. Is Being a Judge Easy?

No, the process of becoming a judge itself is extensive and difficult. Aspiring judges must complete a JD and have several years of experience before considering becoming a judge. Judgeships are also highly competitive and limited, making obtaining this career challenging. 

Once an attorney obtains a judgeship, the job requires complete impartialness, thorough knowledge of the law, and excellent critical thinking and analytical skills to interpret evidence correctly. 

Depending on the type of cases you handle, people’s lives may be in your hands! Judges undergo a lot of stress and must be completely confident in their decisions. 

2. How Long Does It Take to Become a Judge?

It will take at least nine years to become a judge, but typically takes around 17-20. Four of these years will be spent completing an undergraduate degree, three will be spent completing a JD, and the remaining years will be spent writing your bar and gaining experience practicing law.

While some positions only require at least two years of experience, many require at least 10. 

3. Is Being a Judge Stressful?

Yes, being a judge is stressful. Judges are in charge of keeping order in courtrooms when emotions are high and correctly assessing evidence in order to make a fair decision. There is always the risk of incorrectly sentencing defendants, so judges are under constant pressure to make the right choice. 

4. Is It Hard to Become a Judge?

Yes, becoming a judge will require you to complete at least seven years of education, including law school, which is notorious for being difficult, and proving you’re the best candidate for a judgeship out of hundreds of other successful attorneys. 

5. Do Federal Court Judges Get Paid More than State Court Judges?

Yes, federal court judges typically make significantly more than state court judges. Federal court judges are also offered more benefits and have more salary security. Regardless of their experience or location, they are all paid the same salary. 

6. Where are Judges Paid the Most?

Judges are paid the most in New York, where their average salary is $165,030. New York also has the most opportunity for judges, as it typically has more job openings per year than any other state.

Final Thoughts

The journey to becoming a judge will undoubtedly require hard work and commitment! But, once you’ve reached your final destination and are presiding over courtrooms, you’ll be a major pillar in the justice system and have an extremely fulfilling career!

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