Judges are one of the faces of justice in the United States. Being the person with the power to hand out sentences and give victims of crimes the justice they deserve is a difficult but rewarding job. A good percentage of those who study law dream of becoming judges.
If you want to become a judge, you likely know that it will be a long process. Keep reading to find out exactly how to become a judge and how long it will take.
What Is a Judge?
By definition, a judge is a public official with the authority to preside over legal trials and cases. Judges are elected by the public and can serve the public courts for years. Most states have terms that last anywhere between four and 15 years, though there are no actual limitations placed on term lengths.
We look to judges to be beacons of justice and equality, to ensure everyone is given a fair trial and fair sentencing.
What Does a Judge Do?
Judges do a lot of work; their job is not to just sit in a chair and shout “Guilty!” all day. They have to conduct hearings, determine how cases are tried, and decide how to sentence those convicted of crimes.
Conduct Hearings and Trials
Judges are the ones who conduct hearings, preliminary hearings, and trials. They have the final say in how all pretrial business will be handled and if any motions will be passed or not. During trials, they monitor and instruct those in the courtroom, including the jury, on how to behave in court. Essentially, they run the courtroom.
Determine How Cases Will Be Tried
Every court case is unique, so it would be difficult to try them all the same way. Judges help make determinations about how a trial will run, deciding to include a jury or not, and what evidence will be deemed admissible and inadmissible.
Sentence Guilty Parties
When a person is deemed guilty of a crime, judges are the ones who decide their sentencing. For example, if a person commits a crime that warrants five to 10 years of prison time, a judge will review the case and decide how long they feel that person must serve for justice to be served.
Essential Judge Skills
Good at Making Decisions
Since judges are required to determine everything from how a trial will be held to sentencing for crimes, they must be good decision-makers. They cannot be hesitant or change their minds in a courtroom, so judges must be sure of the decisions they make.
Being able to hear a case built both for and against a person accused of a crime can make things confusing. It often comes down to whose lawyer argued the case better. To be a good judge, being able to think critically about the accusations and evidence is crucial.
Zoning out during a court case simply cannot happen as a judge. If you decide to become a judge, you will need to develop very good listening skills and be able to focus on listening to others for hours on end.
Judge Salaries and Job Outlook
Even judges who are just beginning their careers earn an average of $90,000 per year. This is a very good salary for anyone, especially when you can begin earning this much in your first year of work.
As you gain more years of experience in your career, you may find yourself earning well over $130,000 per year. It may take years to build up enough experience for this level of pay, but becoming a judge is the type of career people go into for life.
There are different types and levels of judges, from magistrates and adjudicators to county and federal. Your pay will greatly reflect where you work; if you work as a federal judge, you will definitely be earning more than you would as a county judge.
Judge positions are highly sought after and breed a lot of competition between candidates. Since judges are often either elected or nominated into their position, the competition to become a judge becomes even more intense as everyone battles for votes.
Due to all of the competition, the job outlook for judges isn’t great; the field is expected to grow only three percent by 2028, which is much slower than other occupations. This doesn’t mean it is impossible, though. Positions will continue to open up as current judges retire, and if you can build up a good reputation, you should be able to gain a job.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Judge?
At the very minimum, it will take you nine years to become a judge. You will have to spend at least seven years in school and work as a lawyer for at least two years before you can even begin to consider running for judge positions.
Many judges end up spending decades working in the field before they are appointed as judges. The more experience you have, the better, but if you are extremely good at your job, you have a higher chance of becoming a judge sooner.
How to Become a Judge: A Step by Step Guide
Becoming a judge can be challenging, but if you are good at law, you should have no problems. Following these easy steps will help you through the process.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree and Apply for Law School
The first step to becoming a judge is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Many schools offer pre-law degree programs for you to enroll in, but if that is not an option through the school you wish to attend, you can instead earn a degree in a subject like criminal justice or political science.
After earning your bachelor’s degree, you will need to apply to law school to pursue a master’s degree and eventually, a doctorate. Every school has different application requirements, but having experience through an internship and having completed elective courses in law can help your chances of being admitted.
Step 2: Earn a Juris Doctorate
While many occupations can be achieved with a variety of degrees, to become a judge you absolutely must have completed a juris doctorate. Without this degree, you will be unable to become a judge.
You will spend your first three years or so of law school learning about all legal processes, and the final year of law school allows for more elective studies of your personal interests. Many choose to study subjects such as environmental law or family law during this final year.
After completing law school, you will have earned your juris doctorate. In order to practice law in the United States, the school you earned your degree from must be accredited by the American Bar Association.
Step 3: Pass the Bar Exam
After completing law school, there is yet another requirement to fulfill before you can begin practicing law. You will have to take and pass the bar exam for whatever state you intend to practice in. People often spend multiple days working on the exam.
The bar exam consists of both an essay portion and a multistate bar exam. The essay portion of the exam is designed to test your knowledge of federal and state laws, as well as your ability to apply them to your practice. The multistate aspect is simply a standardized test.
Step 4: Practice Law for Years and Try to Earn Judgeship
In order to become a judge, you will need to practice law as a lawyer for at least two years, though many judges practiced for much longer prior to earning their judgeship. Assuming you are a good lawyer and practice law successfully for a few years, you can then begin trying to earn your judgeship.
To become a judge, you will either have to be elected, appointed, or temporarily appointed as one. The method in which you become a judge will depend on where and how you plan to do so. All three methods are effective as long as you prove to be a good candidate.
Should You Become a Judge in 2020?
If being a judge is the job of your dreams, you should definitely pursue it. However, do not go into it with any delusions of it being a quick and easy process. Becoming a judge will take time, dedication, and a lot of hard work.
FAQs About Becoming a Judge
To become a judge, you will need to earn a juris doctorate; a bachelor of law (LLB) is not enough.
This depends on your preference. Many lawyers can make much more than judges can, but if your heart is set on being a judge, then that is the better choice for you.
No, you must have a degree in law studies and/or a juris doctorate, and experience as a lawyer to become a judge.