How to Become a Judge - Career Information

Female judge sitting in court holding her gavel
Darren Mower / Getty Images

A judge oversees trials and hearings to make sure they are handled fairly under the law. He or she presides over cases that might involve traffic offenses, civil disagreements or business disputes. When a jury must decide the outcome, a judge issues instructions on applicable laws, tells it how to listen to the evidence and hears its verdict. Some judges are appointed while others are elected.

Quick Facts

  • In 2015, judges earned a median salary of $126,930 annually and $61.03 hourly.
  • Approximately 30,000 people were employed in this occupation in 2014.
  • Most work for state and local governments.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a stable job outlook for this occupation through 2024.

A Day in a Judge's Life

These are some typical job duties taken from online ads for job openings found in various sources:

  • "Interpret and apply various provisions of federal and state statutes and regulations"
  • "Preside over administrative hearings"
  • "Schedule administrative hearings"
  • "Participate in settlement or plea negotiations in advance of trial"
  • "Conduct preliminary proceedings in criminal cases"
  • "Preside at all stages of adjudicative proceedings and assist the three-member commission to resolve legal and factual disputes alone, or in major cases, in conjunction with a team of accounting and policy advisors and administrative staff"
  • "Prepare discovery order summarizing unresolved issues and deadlines for discovery"

    How to Become a Judge

    Most judges come to the bench from careers as lawyers, but in 40 states non-lawyers can have limited-jurisdiction judgeships. To become a lawyer, you must earn a professional degree in law, usually a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from a law school after first earning a bachelor's degree. You can expect to spend four years working on your bachelor's degree followed by three years in law school.

    All states provide new judges with judicial education and training that lasts about three weeks. Over 25 states require judges to take continuing education courses while they are serving on the bench. In many states, judges must be licensed to practice law and must be a member of that state's bar.

    What Soft Skills Do You Need?

    Those who want to become judges must have certain qualities, also called soft skills. They typically acquire them outside a classroom. Some of them are:

    • Listening: You must be able to listen carefully to what others are telling you during trials and hearings.
    • Critical Thinking: The ability to carefully evaluate information when making a decision is essential.
    • Problem Solving: Judges must be able to recognize, identify and then solve problems.
    • Reading Comprehension: You need to be able to understand complex documents.
    • Verbal Communication: It is imperative that the instructions you provide during a hearing or trial are clear.
    • Writing: Judges must clearly write decisions and instructions.

    The Downside of Being a Judge

    • Some courts are in session during evenings and weekends.
    • Judges sometimes have to issue warrants and restraining orders during non-business hours, including during the night.
    • Those negatively affected by your decisions may become angry with you, and may even threaten you.

    What Will Employers Expect From You?

    Based on online job announcements found in various sources, states and other municipalities that hire judges expect them to have the following qualifications in addition to their education, license and training:

    • "Ability to conduct fair and impartial hearings"
    • "Impartiality; judicial temperament; self-motivation; and tact"
    • "Of good moral character, emotionally stable and mature, committed to equal justice under the law"
    • "Ability to work effectively as part of a team with commissioners, advisors, and stakeholder  representatives"
    • "Requires extensive research and the ability to identify numerous, detailed issues"

    Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

    Occupations With Similar Tasks

     DescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2014)Minimum Required Education/Training
    MediatorUses a selection of processes to help people settle disputes without going to court$58,020Law Degree Required in Some States/Training
    Judicial Law Clerk

    Assist judges in doing research and preparing documents

    $50,740Law Degree
    AttorneyRepresents clients in criminal and civil cases$115,820Law Degree

    Sources:
    Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited May 30, 2016).
    Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited May 30, 2016).