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Judges are required to have a law degree and work experience as a lawyer. Getting a law degree usually takes seven years of full-time study after high school—four years of undergraduate study, followed by three years of law school. Law degree programs include courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing.
Additionally, most judges must be either appointed or elected into judge positions, a procedure that often takes political support. Many judges are appointed to serve fixed renewable terms, ranging from four years to 14 years. A few judges, such as appellate court judges, are appointed for life.
Judicial nominating commissions screen candidates for judgeships in many local jurisdictions and for some federal judgeships. Some judges are elected to a specific term, commonly four years. All jurisdictions have some type of orientation for newly elected or appointed judges.
Steps to becoming a Judge
The first step to becoming a judge is becoming a lawyer. Very quickly, this is how to become a lawyer:
Earn a Bachelor's Degree
This can be in any field, but most lawyers-to-be will major in something relevant like political science, history or economics.
Earn a Law Degree
Law school is very competitive to get into, so it is important that you score as highly as possible on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Once in school, intern and get as much practical experience as possible.
Pass Bar Exam
After earning a law degree, prospective lawyers must get admitted to the state bar in order to start working. This process varies state by state, but involves passing numerous exams in order to be licensed. Once a member of the bar, lawyers can start working.
If interested in becoming a judge, lawyers submit their name for consideration to a judicial nominating commission. They may also be recommended by politicians. Generally, those seeking judgeship have significant legal work experience and often have political support.
There are five main ways of becoming a judge:
Partisan elections - Judges are elected by the public. Party affiliation is displayed on the ballot.
Nonpartisan elections - Judges are elected by the public. Party affiliation is not displayed on the ballot.
Legislative elections - Judges are chosen by the state legislature.
Gubernatorial appointment - Judges are appointed by the governor. Approval from the legislative body may be needed.
Assisted appointment/Merit selection - After assessing the qualifications of judicial candidates, a nominating commission gives the governor a list of names. The governor then appoints a judge. After serving a term, the public votes on whether or not the judge will continue serving.
The assisted appointment method is the most commonly used, but the process is different state to state.
Should I become a Judge?
First ask yourself if you should be a lawyer. If you want to be a judge, you have no choice but to be a lawyer first.
Judges make great money, there is no doubt about it. But should you become a judge to get rich? No. Some lawyers make more money than judges do. The desire to be a judge should be rooted in a sense of moral duty and justice.
Judges do have the power to change people's lives, for better or worse. In some regards, this is the best part of the job, but it is also an incredible amount of pressure. A bad (or even merely unpopular) decision could lead to substantial public backlash. Judges are often under strict deadlines, and may not have as much time to read up on a case before it comes to court as they would like.
Being in court is many lawyers' favorite part of the job. Judges get to be in court all the time. There is a good amount of variety to the job to keep it interesting, and judges mostly report quite high job satisfaction.
Making the jump from lawyer to judge is quite difficult, as there are relatively few positions to fill and the process is difficult. Depending on the state, and the court, judges can be elected or appointed by various means. Once in, however, judges enjoy high job security with some positions being for life.
One other potential negative is the sense of professional isolation some judges feel when they make the jump from lawyer to judge. All your old lawyer colleagues are no longer equals, and now have to address you as "your honor". This imbalance can put a strain on old friendships.
What are Judges like?
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