Timothy Peck 5 min read Career Path Breakdowns

How to Become a Judge: Steps to Take from High School

If becoming a judge is your planned career path, plan on spending years in school, taking challenging standardized exams, and gaining professional experience before getting consideration for one of these prominent positions. Because there are different types of judges and different ways to become a judge, the process for how to become a judge is not as clear as in other career pathways but, in general, most judges follow similar tracks to the profession. 

 

What Does a Judge Do?

 

From small claims to the Supreme Court, the courtrooms judges serve in vary, but their duties largely remain the same—they’re impartial officials who preside over legal proceedings and uphold the rights of all individuals involved in the legal process. Other common functions of a judge include: 

 

  • Ensuring proceedings follow established rules and procedures—such as how evidence is submitted and testimony is given 
  • Researching legal issues and interpreting laws 
  • Writing legal opinions
  • Deciding a defendant’s guilt or innocence (in non-jury criminal trials) 
  • Ruling on liability and compensation (in civil cases) 
  • Sentencing convicted individuals 

 

How Much Do Judges Make? 

 

The years of preparation needed to become a judge and the responsibility given to them is rewarded with a strong salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual wage for administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers in 2019 was $97,870. The earnings are even greater for judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates, whose average earnings in 2019 were $136,910—nearly $100,000 more than the $39,810 average annual wage of all workers. 

 

How to Become a Judge: Steps to Take from High School

 

How to become a judge? The route from high school to becoming a judge is lengthy; for many students, the pursuit can last decades. A general timeline from high school to a judgeship is: 

 

  • Graduate high school 
  • Earn a bachelor’s degree
  • Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
  • Earn a Juris Doctor (also known as a Doctor of Jurisprudence) degree 
  • Pass the Bar exam
  • Build your resume by practicing law 
  • Get elected or appointed to a judgeship 

 

High School

 

In high school, you can start building the foundational skills needed by a judge. High-level reading and writing classes—such as AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition—help train students to read and retain large amounts of information and expand their vocabulary. They also help build the communication and critical thinking skills that judges use on a daily basis. Social studies courses are also beneficial for familiarizing yourself with history, government, politics, and civics for an understanding of the “why” behind many of our laws.

 

Debate team is an awesome activity outside of the classroom to develop the persuasive argument and speaking skills necessary for a career as a judge. Moot court competitions are another way to gain firsthand experience with the legal process. An internship or part-time job with a local law firm is also a great way to get real-world experience working in law and to start building your resume. 

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College

 

A bachelor’s degree is required to attend law school. There’s no specific “pre-law” major, as you can study anything and apply to law school. That said, some popular majors for prospective law students are: 

 

  • Criminal justice 
  • Political science 
  • Philosophy
  • History 

 

Interested in learning more about majors that can set you up for success in law school? Check out our article, 10 Best Undergraduate Majors for Law School

 

No matter what you major in, if you hope to attend a top law school, you will need exceptionally high grades. The median GPA for incoming students at the top 12 of U.S. News Best Law Schools was just under a 3.9 on a four-point scale

 

The median LSAT score was equally impressive—the average entering student achieved a 170 out of 180, a performance better than more than 97% of test-takers between 2015 and 2018. It can be helpful to take math and philosophy classes in college to strengthen your logical reasoning for the LSAT.

 

Participating in a debate club or a campus-based organization like Toastmasters is a great way to continue bolstering your public speaking skills while in college. College also provides an opportunity to build your resume—look for internships at law practices or in the court system. 

 

Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

 

The LSAT—the standard entrance exam for admission into law school—is a 3.5-hour-long exam consisting of 99 to 102 questions. There are four main sections to the LSAT: 

 

  • Logical reasoning 
  • Analytical reasoning 
  • Reading comprehension 
  • Writing sample (which is unscored)

 

There is also an unscored section of experimental questions which is used to test questions for use on future exams. The average LSAT score is 150 (on a scale of 120-180), but for admission to a top law school, you’ll likely need a score well above 160.  

 

If you’re planning to go straight to law school after college, you should plan to take the LSAT in your junior year fall, giving you some time to retake if needed. This exam is quite different from other standardized tests, and you may need to spend extra time familiarizing yourself with the question types.

 

Law School

 

To practice law in the U.S., a lawyer must have a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school approved by the American Bar Association. Completing law school is generally a three-year process. The first year of law school is focused on learning foundational legal concepts like civil procedure and criminal law, while the following two years provide the opportunity to explore more specialized topics like environmental law or tax law. Other fields of law include:

 

  • Corporate law
  • Civil rights law
  • Criminal law
  • Family law 
  • Immigration law 
  • Labor law

 

In addition to coursework, you should explore internship opportunities while in law school. Internships provide a host of benefits including hands-on experience, the opportunity to expand your professional network, and resume building. 

 

Bar Exam

 

In order to practice law, you’ll need admission into the Bar in your state or jurisdiction, which is generally tied to passing various exams. The specifics for being admitted to a specific state or jurisdiction Bar vary, but they commonly involve the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The MBE is an exam consisting of 200 multiple-choice questions and is administered in two, three-hour-long sets of 100 questions. In addition to the MBE, it’s common to have to pass a local Bar exam and an ethics exam for entrance into the Bar. 

 

Work Experience 

 

Most judges have worked as law or judicial clerks or have practiced as attorneys—becoming familiar with legal proceedings and gaining firsthand legal experience—before becoming a judge. The requirements for different judgeships vary, however, a good rule of thumb is the more experience you have with the law, the more opportunities to become a judge are available.  

 

Earning a Judgeship

 

There are two common ways in which to earn a judgeship—both of which are extremely competitive—you’re either appointed or elected. 

 

Election: Winning an election is typically the faster track to becoming a judge. Obtaining a judgeship through election requires all the skills and trappings of running a political campaign—you’ll need to raise money, make political connections, maintain a high profile in the community, and connect with voters. 

 

Appointment: This is typically a longer path toward a judgeship. Appointments are often made by executives like governors or the President, but are normally vetted and approved by judicial selection committees or recommended by an association such as the state Bar. Once nominated for an appointed position, it’s common for judges to interview for the seat. 

 

Additional Training 

 

Even once elected or appointed as a judge, the educational process continues. Guidelines vary by state, but most judges need to participate in training programs like those offered by the American Bar Association, National Center for State Courts, and the National Judicial College. Many judges continue participating in seminars and training to stay informed on the law and the latest legal thoughts.

 

Getting into a good college is one of the first steps toward becoming a judge. If you’re wondering what your odds are at the school that you think will put you on the path to a judgeship, CollegeVine can help. Our free chancing calculator takes into account stats like GPA and standardized test scores, along with more holistic factors like extracurricular activities to predict your odds of admission at more than 500 colleges and universities.

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Timothy Peck
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.