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How to Become a Judge: Career Roadmap and Education Requirements

Majors Overview January 9, 2013

Judges are relied on to uphold the rights of individuals involved in legal proceedings, supervising such proceedings, and presiding over court hearings and trials. They are relied on to ensure that established procedures and rules are adhered to in conducting trials; such rules may include determining how evidences are submitted and testimony given. A defendant’s innocence or guilt in a non-jury criminal trial is decided by a judge; similarly, a defendant’s compensation or liability in a civil case is also ruled on by a judge. Normally, having prior work experience as a lawyer and holding a law degree are considered sufficient qualifications for individuals seeking employment as a judge. Judges get employed either by having the public elect them or governments appoint them.

Prospective judges are often required to maintain a Juris doctor degree from law school. Licensure norms are required to be satisfied by judges to practice law, but such licensure is generally sought after when they begin work as lawyers; appointment to become judges comes later. Abilities to communicate, make decisions, reason and think critically are the key skills required of a prospective judge. In this article, we have outlined a stage-wise guide for aspiring judges to pursue their career.

Stage One: Attending an Undergraduate Program

Aspiring judges are required to attend undergraduate school before beginning a career in law. Though they are not required to choose any subject of specialization, many law students opt for degrees in economics, business, history or political science.

Stage Two: Earning a Degree in Law

Most judges start their career as lawyers, and prior legal practice is a prerequisite for many federal and state judgeships. A lawyer is required to have completed a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree that takes three years to complete at a law school; the law school must have the approval of the American Bar Association (ABA). Part-time programs are offered at some schools, these usually take about four years to complete. Coursework during the first year of law school covers fundamental law, including subjects such as criminal law, civil procedure, torts and contracts. In the last two years, students are allowed to choose elective subjects such as tax law and family law. They can usually participate in clinical internships. Students can get hands on work experience and opportunities to network when they participate in externship and internship programs. This will enhance their career opportunities after graduation.

Stage Three: Passing a Bar Examination

After earning a Juris doctor degree, prospective lawyers must apply for the bar exam in their state or jurisdiction of practice. Although there are various testing and admission norms, licensure is a common requirement for admission to a bar. Such licensure requires candidates to pass several examinations including the Multistate Bar Exam. The exam will take six hours to complete has two hundred questions adhering to a curriculum that includes various law basics, such as torts, contracts and criminal law, apart from an ethics examination and a state-specific examination. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) provides past exams for purchase on their website; students can use these exams to get an idea of what the bar exam entitles.

Stage Four: Working as an Attorney

Majority of judges employed as attorneys prior to acquiring their judgeship. Usually a judgeship is preceded by work as an attorney that involves representing clients before a court or resolving disputes in other legal proceedings. During the performance of their expected tasks, they conduct legal research, draft court documents and appear in court.

Stage Five: Obtaining a Judgeship

Lawyers are made judges through appointment or election. Application for judgeship involves submission of names for consideration by a judicial nominating commission; alternatively, candidates may be recommended by senators or other politicians. Ordinarily, nomination for a judgeship depends on support from a politician and a strong history of legal practice. Appointment for life-term is given to some federal judges while renewable or fixed terms of office apply to some other local, state or federal judges.

Stage Six: Completing Training

After their election or appointment, judges are required to attend training programs such as the ones administered by the National Center for State Courts, National Judicial College, or ABA. Alternatively, they may complete introductory training courses administered by the states. Federal court personnel including federal judges can attend training programs provided by the Federal Judicial Center. Coursework in these programs involves completion of online exercises, reviewing of legal publications and participation in court trials. Continuing education throughout their career is the norm among judges who seek to stay abreast with any changes to the law.

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