How to Become a Judge in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for judges. Get the facts about job duties, education and licensure requirements to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Judge Do?

Judges primarily work in offices and courtrooms. As of 2015, 51% of judges and hearing officers worked for state governments. They hear arguments and evidence in cases that they're assigned, and may need to perform legal research of their own when issuing rulings. Judges and hearing officers are responsible for ensuring that the law has been followed during court proceedings and that court procedure is followed. They rule on the admissibility of evidence or testimony, and may provide instructions to the jury when necessary. Judges are also involved in sentencing those convicted of a crime.

Degree Required Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Training Required Judge training is generally required and provided by the jurisdiction that seats the judge
Key Responsibilities Preside over hearings and trials, determining the admission of evidence and testimony and supervise the jury process; interpret the law and apply it properly; authorize warrants and other evidence gathering under the law; issue orders, rulings and verdicts
Licensure or Certification Licensure as a lawyer is required in all states
Job Growth (2014-2024) 1% for all judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates*
Median Salary (2015) $126,930 for all judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a Judge?

Judges have a number of duties, depending on their jurisdiction. If you are a judge, your duties could include arbitrating in courtrooms, enforcing procedural rules, sentencing convicted individuals and presiding over preliminary hearings. You might also interpret laws, which means you would give rulings based on your judgment or on your understanding of the law.

Judges at different levels preside over a variety of civil and criminal cases. For example, state judges might hear cases involving small claims or traffic violations. In contrast, administrative law judges work for government bodies such as the Social Security Administration. Judges must hold bachelor's and Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees and pass rigorous examinations.

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

First, you will need to obtain a bachelor's degree. There is no specified major for aspiring lawyers, but do make certain that your 4-year curriculum includes courses in government, foreign language, public speaking and history. Researching, writing and analytical abilities will also be necessary in your legal career.

Step Two: Attend Law School and Obtain a Juris Doctor

Most judges have earned law degrees. In some states, you may become a judge without a law degree, but your prospects will be greatly enhanced if you obtain this credential. You must pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in order to be admitted to law school. Achieving a good score on the LSAT, along with excellent undergraduate grades, can help your chances of being admitted to competitive law programs.

You should also attend a law school that has been approved by the American Bar Association. Your curriculum should include courses such as civil procedure, evidence, legal philosophy, advanced legal research and jurisprudence. Law school takes about three years to complete. Upon graduating, you'll receive a Juris Doctor (J.D.).

Step Three: Pass the Bar and Other Exams

In all states, you must pass a written bar examination. A passing score on an ethics examination is also required in most states. Most U.S. states and territories require candidates to take the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), a 200-question test that lasts six hours. The multiple-choice questions on the MBE evaluate examinees' knowledge of areas such as constitutional law, criminal law, evidence and contracts. Varying state by state, a local bar exam may be required along with the MBE and the ethics exam.

Step Four: Become Appointed or Elected to the Court

Experienced lawyers can be either elected or appointed to judgeships. This process often involves politics. Federal administrative law judges receive their appointments from government agencies, and they are required to take a comprehensive test given by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. A number of state-level judges are appointed to their posts, while others are elected by voters. In several states, appointed commissions evaluate candidates for judgeships.

Step Five: Complete Judgeship Training

Elected and appointed judges must participate in training programs, as required by every state. Judicial education programs are offered by the National Center for State Courts and the American Bar Association. In the majority of states, judges are required to enroll in continuing education classes throughout their careers.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Arbitrators, mediators and conciliators listen to opposing sides in a dispute and try to resolve the conflict, which is similar to the role that judges perform. They differ from judges because they propose compromises and try to get the two sides to come to an agreement instead of ruling in one side's favor. Unlike judges, they only need a bachelor's degree. Lawyers are also professionals who need a Juris Doctor degree; they prepare documents and filings for their clients and argue their client's position in hearings, trying to secure their client the most favorable outcome of a hearing possible. Paralegals and legal assistants work with lawyers to prepare materials for the cases they're representing, and are only required to have an associate's degree.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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