How to Become a Judge or Hearing Officer
Judges must be able to listen well to the facts provided by opposing parties.
Judges and hearing officers typically need a law degree and work experience as a lawyer.
Although there may be a few positions available for those with a bachelor’s degree, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree is typically required for most jobs as a local, state, or federal judge or hearing officer.
In addition to earning a law degree, federal administrative law judges must pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
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.
Most judges and magistrates must be appointed or elected into their positions, a procedure that often requires political support. Many local and state judges are appointed to serve fixed renewable terms, ranging from 4 to 14 years. A few judges, such as appellate court judges, are appointed for life. Judicial nominating commissions screen candidates for judgeships in many states and for some federal judgeships.
For specific state information, including information on the number of judgeships by state, term lengths, and requirements for qualification, visit the National Center for State Courts.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Most judges and hearing officers learn their skills through years of experience as practicing lawyers. Some states allow those who are not lawyers to hold limited-jurisdiction judgeships, but opportunities are better for those with law experience.
All states have some type of orientation and training requirements for newly elected or appointed judges. The Federal Judicial Center, American Bar Association, National Judicial College, and National Center for State Courts provide judicial education and training for judges and other judicial branch personnel.
More than half of all states, as well as Puerto Rico, require judges to take continuing education courses while serving on the bench. General and continuing education courses usually last from a few days to 3 weeks.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Most judges and hearing officers are required to have a law license. In addition, they typically must maintain their law license and good standing with their state bar association while working as a judge or hearing officer.
Advancement for some judicial workers means moving to courts with a broader jurisdiction. Advancement for various hearing officers includes taking on more complex cases, practicing law, and becoming district court judges.
Critical-thinking skills. Judges and hearing officers must apply rules of law. They cannot let their own personal assumptions interfere with the proceedings. For example, they must base their decisions on specific meanings of the law when evaluating and deciding whether a person is a threat to others and must be sent to jail.
Decisionmaking skills. Judges and hearing officers must be able to weigh the facts, to apply the law and rules, and to make a decision relatively quickly.
Listening skills. Judges and hearing officers evaluate information, so they must pay close attention to what is being said.
Reading skills. Judges and hearing officers must be able to distinguish important facts from large amounts of sometimes complex information and then evaluate the facts objectively.
Writing skills. Judges and hearing officers write recommendations and decisions on appeals and disputes. They must be able to write their decisions clearly so that all sides understand the decision.