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How to Become a Judge in the USA? A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Become a Judge in the USA A Step by Step Guide featured image

Besides being a lawyer, there are many positions within the legal field that may call your name. The fact that you’re reading this means that you’re interested in learning how to become a judge, so we’ve compiled everything you need to know to help prepare you for this exciting career path. 

From the expectations of the job to the requirements it takes to get there, read on to prepare yourself for what could be a very high-paying and rewarding career. 

Source: Unsplash 

What Does a Judge Do?

A judge presides over hearings and trials and is responsible for making decisions as to the case in question. They must remain objective throughout the trials and can also determine whether or not evidence is admissible in the courtroom. Depending on the type of trial at hand, judges may have the power to handle the ruling of a case (as opposed to a jury). 

If you are serving as a judge alongside other judges, then the decision comes down to majority rule. For anyone seeking a position as a federal judge, then you’ll need to obtain legislative confirmation to achieve lifetime appointment. 

Salary Expectations of a Judge 

The role of a judge requires immense preparation and several requirements. However, once you become appointed, you can benefit from a lucrative career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, judges earn an average of $124,200 per year. 

Requirements for the Position 

Before serving as a judge, you’ll have to rack up years of experience within the legal field. Many judges begin their journey as defense attorneys or prosecutors. This provides the necessary understanding of how legal cases and hearings work, so that once you are on the bench, you will have a firm grasp on what to expect. 

Unlike other jobs where you can apply for a position, a judge gets elected or appointed. Given that the decision is not entirely in your hands, it is of utmost importance to build a solid reputation and network within the legal and political community where you wish to be appointed. For example, politicians have the power to nominate judges. 

Along with the social factor of election, judges have to complete educational requirements, too. 

How to Become a Judge 

Let’s take a look at all the steps you will go through when attempting to become a judge. 

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree 

The first step in the process is earning a bachelor’s degree so that you can apply to law school. Some schools may offer pre-law degrees, but for the most part, you’ll be choosing between related subjects like political science, philosophy, and criminal justice, to name a few. 

Within your coursework, you’ll focus on communications, sociology, English, and an understanding of the political and judicial systems. While you are earning your degree, it is beneficial to take part in a legal internship or join your school’s debate team. 

2. Take the LSAT 

In order to apply to law school, you’ll have to take the LSAT. This standardized test is typically taken by undergraduate students during their junior or senior year. If you earn a high score on your LSAT, you increase the odds of being accepted into your law school of choice. The format of the exam has five sections of 35 minutes, with an essay section. 

3. Earn a Juris Doctorate (JD) 

When you receive your LSAT scores, you can start the application process for law school. Most law schools are three years in length. When you reach the third and final year, you typically choose what type of law you want to practice by focusing on specific coursework. If you’re becoming a lawyer in America, then the designation of JD will only be granted if you earn your degree from a school that is approved by the American Bar Association. 

4. Pass the Bar 

While you may earn your JD degree by fulfilling your law school course requirements, you have another important step to take before you can actually practice as a lawyer. Each state has a bar exam. The two-part and multi-day exam tests your ability to apply the law in your state and according to federal laws. To find out more about your state’s bar exam, use this resource. 

5. Practice as a Lawyer 

Start working as a lawyer. You can choose to work in public service (i.e. as a public defender or prosecutor) or for a private practice. The more experience and networking you have, the more you can increase your chance at being elected as a judge down the road. 

6. Obtain Judgeship

To make it as a judge, there are three main routes. These can take place once you’ve been practicing law for at least two years. The methods are:

  • Election: Run in elections to become a local judge 
  • Appointment: Judicial seats can be appointed by people in power like governors or even the President of the United States. This process begins with being added to a shortlist, going through interview rounds, and concluding with confirmation hearings. 
  • Temporary appointment: In some states, there could be a temporary appointment that occurs when a judge is removed or steps down in the middle of a term. If there are no elections upcoming, then the government may place someone in the position temporarily. 

Source: Pixabay

How Long Does it Take to Become a Judge?

There’s no exact time it takes to become a judge. That being said, you can already see that it will take several years, if not decades. After high school, you can plan for a four-year bachelor’s degree, along with 3 years of law school after that. Then, once you become a lawyer, you’ll have to try cases — and you’ll have at least two years of that. Most judges get to their seats after decades of experience. 

How Long Can A Judge Serve?

The length of judgeship depends on where a judge serves. For example, elected positions usually last between four and 15 years. For federal judges, they are appointed for a lifetime. 

Important Skills for a Judge 

A judge plays a very important role in society with the goal to ensure justice. There are a mix of hard and soft skills that it takes to do well in this position. 

Naturally, a deep understanding of the legal system is imperative, but judges should also posses: 

  • Empathy 
  • Communication skills 
  • Critical thinking skills 

Closing Thoughts

With the knowledge of how to become a judge at your fingertips, will you choose to pursue this path? While becoming a judge isn’t guaranteed, it is surely possible if you follow the steps, do well as a lawyer, and can maintain a strong reputation in the field.