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How to become a judge

tips to help you if you're pursuing a career as a judge

Want to become a judge? In this article, we’ll lay out the career path to help you get there.

If you think about it, being a judge is one of the coolest jobs around. In addition to having power and prestige, you also get to shape the lives of all different kinds of people in all different kinds of cases.

Plus, if you value things like justice and fairness, being a judge means you literally get to shape what justice and fairness look like in your community.

Of course, there are many types of judges: civil, criminal, probate, family law, admiralty, administrative (just to name a few).

There are both state and federal judges.

There are trial judges, magistrates, appellate judges, and supreme court justices.

In reality, it would require volumes of material for us to tell you how to pursue each one of those pathways. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on how someone becomes a trial judge who likely hears both civil and criminal cases.

Still, it would also be silly of us to try to tell you the precise technical steps that one must take to become a judge. After all, the way judges get “hired” varies from state to state and the federal process has its own uniqueness.

In some states, for example, judges are appointed by the governor (or the president, in the case of federal judges). In other states, they are elected in partisan or nonpartisan elections.

If you want to know the technical aspects of becoming a judge in your state, check out this interactive map of judicial selection.

Here, we’re simply going to give you the “big picture” steps for becoming a trial judge. Of course, not all of these steps are necessary in every circumstance. But following these guidelines certainly won’t hurt your chances of gaining a judgeship.

Step 1: Excel in law school

Excelling in law school is never a bad idea, but it is particularly important if you want to become a judge.

The truth is, judges need to have finely attuned critical thinking and decision making skills – two skills that are purposely developed in law school.

Historically, English judges were only selected from the Order of the Coif. Today, of course, the Order of the Coif is an honor society and membership is granted only to those who graduate in the top 10% of their accredited law school class.

American judges certainly aren’t required to be members of the Order, but having the pedigree behind your name signifies the depth of your legal scholarship — and ranking at the top of your class is a necessity for most judicial clerkships (see below).

Step 2: Get a clerkship

The best way to determine if you ultimately want to become a judge is to land a judicial clerkship after law school.

As a clerk, you’ll be exposed to many different areas of the law. You’ll often be allowed to watch existing trial lawyers handle matters in front of your judge, and you’ll get to research and write on all sorts of legal issues.

It’s a great training ground for becoming an attorney and, ultimately, for becoming a judge.

While being a clerk is not an absolute necessity for a future judge, you’ll find that many sitting judges do have clerkship experience. The experience and the connections you’ll make are an important career stepping stone.

To use the most famous example, two-thirds of today’s United States Supreme Court justices clerked for a Supreme Court justice themselves.

Step 3: Get some trial experience

According to some judges, attorneys should at least have between six to ten years of experience as a trial attorney before they seek to become a judge.

In fact, half of the judges polled on this issue thought more than 10 years’ experience was ideal.

The reasons for this are obvious, aren’t they?

How are you supposed to rule on evidentiary objections if you’ve never made an evidentiary objection?

How are you supposed to rule on a Motion for Summary Judgement if you’ve never written or argued one?

How are you supposed to preside over a case from complaint to jury verdict if you’ve never had to prepare a case through that whole journey?

Sure, some judges were appointed without adequate experience. Nonetheless, it’s not an ideal situation for judges to lack this kind of important perspective.

Step 4: Keep your nose clean

There’s almost nothing more shocking or repulsive to the concept of justice than when judges themselves break the law.

While existing judges who are caught in wrongdoing often go unpunished, it’s a long, hard road to climb if you want to become a judge but have a rap sheet a quarter-mile long.

As a society, we expect our judicial officers to be law-abiding citizens. It’s a hard sell to elect or appoint a judge who has even a smudge on their record.

The good news is, it’s easy to meet this requirement if you’re seeking to become a judge in the future.

Just don’t break the law.

Don’t be creepy.

Don’t sexually or racially harass people who will come back to haunt you when you become a public figure.

In other words, just be decent. Think about the kind of person you would trust to make life-altering decisions about you, and strive to be that kind of person yourself.

Step 5: Make your intentions known

This last step is obvious but important: if you want to become a judge, you need to tell someone.

Of course, if you live in a state where judicial elections are held, you can tell the public of your intentions by following the rules and procedures for declaring your candidacy. Presumably, you’ll also spend some time campaigning.

If you live in a state where the governor appoints judges (or if you wish to be a federal judge), you have to participate in the nomination process.

Typically, this involves submitting your resume and other required information. After that, a nominating committee will review your information and likely perform background and other checks. Then, when a judicial position opens, you’ll be considered for appointment.

Aiming for a seat on the bench

Ultimately, becoming a judge is serious business. These five steps might sound simple, but each one is an undertaking all its own.

If a seat on the bench is your ultimate goal, you can reasonably expect to work towards it for years.

In the meantime, enjoy the other phases of your legal journey.

Being a clerk or a trial attorney can be a meaningful, fulfilling career. Instead of treating these jobs as a way to “put in your time” until you reach the ultimate goal, you’ll be much happier if you embrace where you are just as enthusiastically as you work towards the future.

Remember that this is a long road, but it’s one worth traveling. Stick with it.

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.

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