How to Become a Judge or Hearing Officer
Judges must pay attention in order to analyze information and issue rulings.
Judges and hearing officers typically need a law degree and work experience as a lawyer. However, specific requirements may vary.
Most judges and magistrates must be appointed or elected to their positions, a process that often requires political support. Many local and state judges are appointed to serve fixed, renewable terms that may have mandatory retirement ages ranging from 65 to 75. Federal and some state judges are appointed for life. Judicial nominating commissions screen candidates for judgeships in many states and for some federal judgeships.
A Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree is typically required for jobs as a local, state, or federal judge or hearing officer.
Earning a law degree usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school: 4 years of undergraduate study in any field, followed by 3 years of law school. Law degree programs include courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing.
Although a J.D. is typical, requirements for these positions may vary. Hearing officers, magistrates, and even judges in some jurisdictions are not required to have a law degree.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Judges and hearing officers typically learn their skills through years of experience as practicing lawyers. Some states allow those who are not lawyers to hold limited-jurisdiction positions as judges, magistrates, or hearing officers, but opportunities are better for those with experience practicing law.
In addition to earning a law degree, federal administrative law judges typically need 7 years of experience as a licensed attorney. They also must pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Some law school graduates who are interested in becoming a judge pursue a judicial clerkship prior to working as a lawyer. Clerkships are typically a specified length of time, such as 1- or 2-year terms, and help law school graduates develop skills required for a legal career. Clerks may need to have passed the bar exam prior to hiring, but they may work without a law license because they have limited duties and are not yet practicing lawyers.
Newly elected or appointed judges and hearing officers sometimes have training requirements. This training may include mock trial sessions, mentorship from experienced judges or hearing officers, and courses on topics such as judicial ethics or relations with news media.
Judges and hearing officers also may be required to take continuing legal education courses throughout their careers.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Judges typically must maintain a law license and good standing with their state bar association.
Advancement for some judicial workers means moving to courts with broader jurisdiction, such as from lower court to appellate court. Advancement for various hearing officers includes taking on more complex cases, practicing law, and becoming district court judges.
Analytical skills. Judges and hearing officers must be able to analyze large amounts of information, determine relevant facts, and make decisions or issue rulings.
Attention to detail. Judges and hearing officers must pay close attention to what is presented and distinguish important facts from complex information.
Communication skills. Judges and hearing officers need to convey information both orally and in writing. They must be able to explain their rulings and write decisions in ways that are both clear and comprehensive.
Critical-thinking skills. Judges and hearing officers must objectively evaluate the facts of a case when applying the rules of law.
Decision-making skills. Judges and hearing officers must be able to conclusively make decisions and issue rulings.