When civil and criminal issues arise, the legal proceedings take place in a courtroom. Judges preside over these proceedings to ensure they remain fair, and correct under the law. Judges also rule on questions of the law and, in some instances, decide the outcome of a case. Keep reading to learn more about the judge.

What Does a Judge Do?

Judges oversee legal proceedings in local, state, and federal courts to make sure they adhere to the law. This entails spending time reading and researching laws and earlier court decisions relevant to the case at hand. They also study current laws to stay up-to-date.

While presiding over trials and hearings, judges enforce rules and hear arguments from the attorneys. They also review evidence and listen to witness testimony to decide the relevance and whether it is admissible.

Criminal Jury Trials

In criminal jury trials, a judge instructs the jury on the laws and how they should consider the evidence. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge hands down his sentence. In criminal trials without a jury, it is the judge who makes a decision on the defendant’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence. If found guilty, they issue the verdict and the sentence.

Judges also have duties to perform outside of a courtroom. This includes revoking parole for violators and sentencing them to prison. They may also work on parole boards to decide whether to grant a prisoner parole. Another duty of a judge includes making decisions about a prisoner’s work-release request.

Civil Trials

In many civil proceedings, such as small court cases, a judge determines which party presented the stronger case and decides how much damages the winning party receives. In large civil proceedings, the parties may request a jury trial.

Those specializing in family law cases make difficult decisions on issues such as child custody in divorce proceedings. They also render decisions on distribution of property, and determine the validity of wills. Additionally, judges issue arrest warrants, search warrants, and restraining orders. They set bail for persons charged with a crime, and revoke bail when needed. Appellate judges review cases to determine if the lower courts followed correct legal procedures. If they decide that the lower court failed to do so, they may order a retrial.

Professional Requirements to Become a Judge

The requirements to become a judge mimic those of a lawyer. This means having a license to practice law and obtaining membership to the state bar. Becoming a lawyer starts with earning a bachelor’s degree (B.S.). This involves four years of undergraduate studies at a college or university.

There is not a specified major for pre-law students, but they benefit from courses such as government, foreign language, and public speaking. During the third or fourth year of undergraduate school, students take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Law schools use the score as one of the determining factors for admission.

The next step is attending law school to receive a Juris Doctor degree (J.D.). This takes three years to complete, and students spend the first year taking basic law courses. During the last two years, they focus their studies on more specific areas of the law. After completing law school, graduates take the bar exam and an ethics exam for admittance into the state bar.

Work Experience

Most judges spend years gaining law experience before obtaining judgeship by appointment. Appointees often begin their careers as law clerks or attorneys to build a good foundation in the legal field. Some jurisdictions have elected, rather than appointed, judges. In this case, there is no requirement for the individual to be a lawyer, or to have a law degree. Some jurisdictions may require that the candidate have a college degree, though not necessarily in law.

Law Degree and the U.S. Supreme Court

Another interesting, and important, fact is that there is no requirement to have a law degree, or to be a lawyer, in order to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course, those tasked with appointing people to this august position scrutinize the individual’s knowledge base, and understanding of the laws pertinent to the cases they typically hear.

So, while not all states require a law degree in order to become a judge, the degree greatly increases an individual’s career prospects. In addition, a judge must have a law degree to practice on the federal level — except on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional Educational Requirements

To widen their career opportunities in the field of law, professionals can earn a Master of Laws (LL.M) degree. The one-year program provides an in-depth understanding of the law and legal principles.

Additional Licensing Requirements

Federal administrative law judges — those who hear cases regarding Social Security Disability, for example — must take and pass an exam issued by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Most states require judges to complete Continuing Education courses throughout the course of their careers. This helps keep them up-to-date with new and changing laws. The number of course hours required varies by state.

Where Can You Work as a Judge

When you work as a judge, you can expect to spend most of your time in an office or courtroom setting. You will also spend time in a law library researching different areas of the law. There are very few hazards that come with working as a judge.

However, judges do sit in the same position for long periods of time in the courtroom, which causes discomfort. On average, they work 40-hours per week, though some work upwards of 50 hours. Limited jurisdiction judges often work part-time as they split their time between two careers.

How Judges Do Get Paid

Judges get paid directly from the government employing them. Some receive an hourly rate, while others earn a salary. Both the hourly rate and the salary vary, but judges enjoy other benefits. This can include sick pay, vacation time, retirement plans, and more.

Judge’s Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) Occupational Outlook Handbook, the average annual salary for judges is $115,520 ($55.54/hr) as of 2018. The amount of salary for judges varies based on the level of government employing them.

Judges on the local level tend to earn the smallest salaries. Supreme Court Justices fall on the higher end of the pay spectrum, followed only by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Employment Outlook for International Lawyers

The BLS predicts that the job growth rate for judges will increase around 5% by 2026. As an essential part of the justice system, government will continue relying on their services.

How to Get a Job as a Judge

The method for getting a job as a judge varies, as each state has unique guidelines on how they fill state and local judiciaries. The two main methods involve an appointment or election.

To earn an appointment for a judicial position, judges and lawyers apply for the position. A government official then makes the appointment, and asks a judicial selection committee for a recommendation. In some instances, local and state bar associations poll their members to evaluate potential candidates. To earn an appointment as a judge, candidates should make a strong effort with their community.

To run as a judge in an election, candidates register with the elections board. They then need to raise money and run a campaign. Maintaining a high profile in the community, and making political connections, improves a candidate’s odds of winning the election. There are three types of judicial elections in the United States:

  • Partisan Elections – The people elect judges by voting for candidates listed on the ballot. The ballot displays the candidates’ political party affiliations.
  • Nonpartisan Elections – The people elect judges by voting from candidates listed on the ballot. The ballots do not display the candidates’ political party affiliations.
  • Legislative Elections – State legislatures select the judges.

Essential Information

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Professional Degree
Degree Field(s) Law
License/Certification Licensure in state of practice
Key Skills Listening, critical thinking, problem solving, verbal communication, research, analytical
Number of Jobs (2016) 43,800
Job Outlook
5% growth rate (average growth rate)
Median Salary (2017) $115,520*
On the Job Training Short term of on-the-job training
Top Earners Top earners in the field are generally employed by state governments

(*Source: the BLS)