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Become a Judge

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If you are reading this, you likely have thought about being a judge. Maybe you have even submitted an application. You like the idea of sitting high on the bench in a black robe dispensing justice, but how much do you really know about what it is like to be a judge? And how much do you know about the process for selecting judges?

The image most have of a judge is overwhelmingly positive: stately, respected, wise, thoughtful, and powerful. To be sure, there are many reasons why you should at least consider becoming a judge—but there are also considerations that may give you pause.

Judges preside over courts at the local, state, and national/federal levels. They are responsible for making sure that disputes between individuals, or individuals and their government are resolved according to established laws. Courts also are available to protect individual rights from government excess. Judges start out as lawyers, and they typically practice law for a number of years before being appointed or elected as a judge.

There are six general steps you must follow to become a judge:

Step 1: Attend Undergraduate School

Aspiring judges can prepare for careers in law during undergraduate school. No specific major of study is required to attend law school, but law students commonly hold degrees in political science, history, business or economics.

Step 2: Earn a Law Degree

Most judges begin their careers as lawyers, and prior legal practice is a prerequisite for many state and federal judgeships. Lawyers must hold Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees, which require completing three years of legal education at a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Some schools offer part-time programs, which typically take four years to complete.

During the first year of study in law school, students typically focus on fundamental law coursework, including contracts, torts, civil procedure and criminal law. In the final two years, students complete elective classes in specialized topics, such as family law and tax law. Clinical internships are also typically available. Completing an internship during law school can provide students with experience working in the field and networking opportunities, which may make it easier to find employment after graduation.

Step 3: Pass a Bar Exam

After earning JD degrees, prospective lawyers must apply for admission to the bar in their state or jurisdiction of practice. Although admission and testing requirements vary, admission to a bar usually requires being licensed, which is gained by passing numerous exams. Exams may include the Multistate Bar Exam, which is a 200-question, 6-hour exam, which tests knowledge of various law fundamentals, such as criminal law, contracts and torts, and ethics exam and a state-specific exam.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) offers past examinations for sale on its website. These exams provide students with an idea of what to expect on the bar examination.

Step 4: Work as an Attorney

Most judges work as attorneys prior to acquiring their judgeship. An attorney represents clients before a court or in other legal proceedings to resolve disputes. Their tasks may include appearing in court, drafting court documents and conducting legal research.

Step 5: Obtain a Judgeship

To become judges, lawyers must be appointed or elected. Lawyers may apply for judgeships by submitting their names for consideration to a judicial nominating commission, or senators or other politicians may recommend them. Generally, becoming nominated for a judgeship requires a strong history of legal practice and support from politicians. Some federal judges are appointed to life-long terms, while other federal, state or local judges have fixed or renewable terms of office. At the end of these terms, judges often either retire or teach law school.

Step 6: Complete Training

After being elected or appointed, judges may be required to complete state-administered introductory training or attend training programs led by legal organizations, such as the ABA, National Judicial College or National Center for State Courts. The Federal Judicial Center provides training programs for federal judges and other federal court personnel. In these programs, trainees participate in court trials, review legal publications and complete online exercises. Most judges are required to complete continuing education courses throughout their careers to stay informed about changes to the law.