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Want to Be the Next RBG? Here’s How to Become a Judge
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Leslie W. Price
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Theatre director, writer, and arts educator.
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Is it easy to become a judge? In a word, no. Most judges start out as attorneys. They spend many years and a substantial amount of money earning their degrees, passing the bar exam and working for quite a long time as lawyers before they ever consider becoming a judge. While some legal students have their sights set on working their way up to a judgeship, others develop an interest in that path through the work they do earlier in their careers.

Whether a judge is appointed or elected, that person can’t simply decide to take on the career without a considerable amount of determination and dedication.

 

What does a judge do?

A judge presides over legal cases, acting as an impartial official who makes certain that — to the best of their ability — justice is served. That requires them to have a vast knowledge of local, state and federal laws and how those laws should be interpreted. In some cases, the judge decides cases on their own. In others, they support a jury as those citizens make a decision about the verdict of a case. The best judges are both strong and compassionate with a great appreciation for doing right by the people who come through their courtrooms.

1. Apply to (and get into) law school.

While not every judge has to be a lawyer before taking their place on the bench (see below), the vast majority of judges do. That typically means first earning a bachelor’s degree and taking the LSAT before you can even apply to law school. The application process is arduous and time-consuming, but it's worthwhile if you have a passion for justice and the common good.

2. Finish law school.

It should go without saying that you’ll need to finish your studies in order to have a good chance at ultimately becoming an attorney. While we’ve heard a lot about Kim Kardashian foregoing law school to work with private tutors in order to prep for the bar, she’s the exception that proves the rule. She’s spending as much time with those private tutors as you will in your studies. There are no shortcuts even for a celebrity, so prepare yourself for lots of long nights of reading, writing and preparing for class.

3. Pass the bar.

Easier said than done. Even if you finish law school, you still have to sit for the bar exam. With lots of studying and a little bit of luck, you may be able to pass it on the first try. That’s not the case for many aspiring lawyers, so make sure you know the limits in your jurisdiction. Some states allow for unlimited tries, others have limits on how many times you can take it in a year and others have lifetime limits. Make sure you’re prepared so you avoid having to go through the stress and expense of the exam multiple times if you can.

4. Practice.

Before having an opportunity to become a judge, most professionals work as attorneys for at least a couple of years. Even before that, many legal professionals work as law clerks while they wait to hear the results of the bar exam. Others spend time working as academics or in the public service sector. Regardless, future judges invest quite a bit of time getting more and more familiar with the law and making connections with colleagues that will serve them for a lifetime.

5. Get appointed.

Many judgeships are appointments. Those can be at the local, state or federal level. Generally, there’s a committee or governmental body that reviews and confirms those appointments. Judicial nominees need to have a strong body of work proving their fairness and knowledge. They also need to be relatively well-connected so that they’re in the mix of folks to get nominated and (ultimately) confirmed.

6. Get elected.

In other instances, judges are elected or their judgeships are retained via election. In some states where judges are elected outright, these races are partisan. In others, they’re non-partisan. When there’s a true election, judicial candidates have to make an effort to inspire voters to choose them. since down-ballot candidates are often less familiar to voters and generally aren't household names. Retention elections can feel like just a formality, but there are instances when voters are motivated not to retain a judge. Judges who depend on elections to keep their places on the bench will need to continue to inspire voters throughout their careers (or at least not upset them).

How long does take to become a judge?

There’s not a hard and fast answer to this question. Some people become judges very early in their lives. Others get started a bit  — or a lot — later. There’s not a particular timeline, but it tends to happen after someone has had a fair amount of experience and is ready for a new chapter in their career. Even after becoming a judge, the best ones continue their education through conferences, reading and collaborating with other legal professionals. 

How much money does a judge make?

According to Glassdoor.com, the average salary for a judge in the United States is about $140,000 annually. That figure varies greatly depending on where a judge practices and whether they’re working at the local, state or federal level. In places with a higher cost of living, Salary.com says judges can make closer to $300,000 per year.

Can a person become a judge without being a lawyer?

Yes, but it's not super common. Typically, these professionals are magistrates or summary court judges, and there is a limit to their power. In civil cases, there’s a cap on the dollar amount these judges can rule on. With regard to criminal cases, summary court judges are usually supervised by more experienced judges. Magistrates and summary court judges are the modern equivalent of a justice of the peace.

Whether at the local, state or federal level, judges provide a valuable service to their communities. Having a robust and continuing education as well as a passion for the law is vital to a long and successful career as a judge.

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Leslie W. Price is a theatre artist, educator and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on LinkedIn or visit her portfolio.

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