What Judges Do
Judges are employed by governments and typically work in courtrooms. As unbiased legal experts, it’s their job to ensure court proceedings are carried out correctly, and that justice is served. They typically focus on a specific area of law, such as traffic, family, criminal, or probate, and may either make decisions/ issue orders or instruct juries on which laws apply to the case at hand and provide them with instructions on how to determine verdicts. Aside from this, it’s up to judges to determine if a person will be jailed while awaiting trial or if he or she will be allowed to post bail, and what the release conditions will be. The judge will also be the one to issue search and arrest warrants. Judges in higher courts are responsible for reviewing the rulings of other judges, and often conduct research to identify which laws apply and determine whether the ruling should be upheld or overruled.
Who would enjoy a career in Judicial Office?
Becoming a judge is a major goal; one which individuals work toward their entire lives. For this reason, it’s generally only attained through many years of work as a lawyer. Moreover, competition for positions is even more intense than those for spots in top law firms, with extremely limited availability. Being elected (as can occur in some US jurisdictions) or appointed (throughout most of the rest of the world) requires having an excellent reputation for legal knowledge, ethical behavior, professionalism, and fairness, particularly with other judges and/ or government officials. An ideal judge is not only fully committed to ensuring the law is upheld, but to ensuring every person is treated equally. While the title “judge” is quite prestigious, those who follow the path must do so out of civic responsibility, seeing it as their duty to ensure the courts are upholding the law fairly. It’s also a well-earned title, as judges spend their lives learning the laws, performing research to understand legislation fully, have calm temperaments even under stress, and are capable of leading a courtroom effectively. The ability to communicate clearly and effectively, both orally and in writing, is essential as well.
Who mightn't like the career?
As explained earlier, becoming a judge is lifetime career goal, so it’s not ideal for someone who isn’t willing to put in years learning, interested in developing a solid reputation, and committed to behaving in an ethical way. It may take decades of work as a lawyer before someone can even be considered for a judgeship. In some cases, judges cannot go back to practicing law after accepting a full-time position, so taking the final step must be done with deep considerations about the ramifications of the decision. Those with questionable track records or who can be ill-tempered will not be considered for positions. Judges do not often get to choose which court or case types they preside over, so it’s also not a good field for someone who wants to work on a specific type of case or who may have conflicts of interest with specific case types. It’s also worth noting that many judges take a pay cut to accept a judgeship, and there are often laws governing if/ how they can earn extra pay, so it’s not a career to get into for the money, as top-earning lawyers may earn more in their current positions. Lastly, getting into an elected position can be particularly challenging, as individuals must not only win over constituents, but gain political support. This means becoming a judge may not be viable for those who don’t have the funds or the tenacity to manage a winning campaign.
Although it is technically possible for someone to become a judge with limited power without first being a lawyer in certain US jurisdictions, it’s incredibly rare. Outside the US, in places such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, working as a lawyer first is required, and admittance into an accredited university upon completion of entry exams is the first step in entering law. Quality institutions have rigorous requirements and competition for positions is fierce. A law degree is required in order to practice at any level above the rank of intern or summer associate in the US and Canada. In the UK and Australia, offerings such as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) or the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP), respectively, are available, which allow people with virtually any undergraduate degree to move into law. Each jurisdiction has further requirements, including a bar exam and licensure process. Following work as a lawyer, judges may be appointed or be elected depending on the position’s rules. Many jurisdictions have training programs for new judges as well.
- Juris Doctor
- Master of Laws
- Doctor of Juridical Science
- Bachelor of Laws (also called a BL or LLB for the Latin Legum Baccalaureus)
- Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL)
- Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP)
Those who are aware they’d like to enter into a law career should plan early and apply for a summer associate or internship position while still in school, as the experience will help secure a long-term position after graduation. Following this, lawyers typically work for many years as they gain practical experience. Although there isn’t a formal interview process, as there would be with other careers, one might say that a candidate’s entire life is the interview. Judges, whether elected or appointed, are vetted, and must typically have the support of other judges and/or the community before being brought on. Campaigns for some elected judgeships run well into the millions, while being appointed requires becoming known to decision-makers and proving one’s worth. It’s also worth noting that the UK, Canada, Australia, and parts of the US use appointment-based systems for judgeships, while certain jurisdictions in the US have elections for specific judgeships.
- Harvard Law School’s “Questions You Should Be Prepared to Answer”
- 10 tips for a strong legal internship interview
- Running for Judge – What Do You Need To Know? (US)
- Campaigning for a judge's seat? A sexier title could get you elected — or sued (US)
- Process of Appointment (UK)
- How to become a Judge in Ontario
- So you want to be a judge? (CA)
- How to become a judge (AU)
Moving into Judicial Office from another career
Work as a lawyer, barrister, or solicitor, are the natural career paths into a judgeship. In rare occasions, any background will suffice. For an example of this, read “Philadelphia write-in candidate: I won with one vote.”
- Lawyer (any specialty)
Graduate / Associate
Role: Incoming lawyers are referred to as associates. Students who are interning may have the distinction of being called a “summer clerk” or “summer associate,” and those fresh from university will be called “first-year associates,” and so on. Lawyers typically hold the title of associate for somewhere between seven and ten years, depending on the firm. During this time, their job is to support the firm’s partners, generally by handling research and reviewing contracts. It’s worth noting that some firms have an “up or out” policy, meaning that if a lawyer is not on the tenure track and does not become a partner within the allotted time, they are asked to leave the firm.
Role: Generally speaking, the title of senior associate is offered to a lawyer around five years into practice, though each firm will have its own guidelines. During this phase, the senior associate is expected to behave as if he or she is a junior partner. Ownership of projects is expected and the individual should be an expert in the area he or she covers. Tasks of greater importance may be assigned to senior associates by the firm’s partners and senior associates will generally have junior associates they can delegate some of their work to. It’s while working as a senior associate that a lawyer demonstrates to the firm that he or she is an indispensable part of the firm and is already behaving as if a partner.
Role: Associates who have proven themselves and are managing some of their own clients as well as bringing in new clients are typically offered partnerships. The exception to this is firms that have “of counsel” positions, which is a promotion from associate for those not on the partner career track. When a lawyer is offered a partnership role, it’s generally an equity partnership in which the lawyer “buys in” to the practice and then earns a percentage of the profits. As part owner, he also gets a say in the firm’s business decisions. Some firms may offer non-equity partnerships and let their seasoned lawyers take a salary instead of being part owner.
Role: Seasoned lawyers who are well-connected and committed to ethical behavior may be nominated and appointed to judgeships or may be elected in some US jurisdictions. Judges determine whether warrants will be issued. In many cases, they listen to all parties involved in a case and make a final ruling, including determining the penalties an individual will face. They may conduct research to verify which laws apply to a case and interpret them accordingly. In cases where a jury is involved, the judge will also give the jury instructions on how to behave and what to consider when making a decision. Judges in higher courts review rulings made by lower courts and determine whether the lower court made the correct ruling. At all levels, judges are also responsible for managing court auxiliary staff and overseeing proceedings to ensure everything is carried out properly. In some cases, judgeships are reviewed, renewed, or go up for reelection after a set period of years, but other positions are appointments for life.
While most judges don’t travel for work, circuit court judges may travel extensively from one court to another.
Entry Level Lawyer: According to data from PayScale, those beginning their careers have salaries of approximately USD $95,258 in the United States, £39,530 in the United Kingdom, CAD$90,210 in Canada, and AU$71,860 in Australia.
Mid-Career Lawyer: USD$121,077, £70,800, CAD$110,580, AU$113,943.
Experienced Lawyer: USD$159,040, £74,340, CAD$121,250, AU$145,816.
Judge: In the US, judges typically earn between USD$36,073 and USD$148,504, with an average annual salary of USD$66,709, according to PayScale. Supreme Court Justices earn a bit more, coming in at just over USD$250,000 per NTUF data.
In the UK, salaries reported fall between £18,624 and £233,424, with an average of £25,835. Justices of the Supreme Court in the UK earn £217,000, per the Ministry of Justice salary report.
In Canada, the reported range is CAD$42,000 to CAD$140,00, with an average of CAD$64,500 annually. Justices with the Supreme Court of Canada top CAD$375,000, per Federal Judicial Affairs.
In Australia, judge salaries tend to start at just over AUD$300,000 and top out around AUD$500,000, though High Court Justices can anticipate at least $520,000 per the Remuneration Tribunal.
Naturally, bonuses and profit sharing are a major part of a partner’s income. With additional payments, an experienced attorney can earn more than USD$307,000, £120,000, CAD$156,000, or AU$206,000. At the judgeship level, “bonuses” are not given, though allowances often are and may exceed tens of thousands of dollars.
Why Judges move on
Because becoming a judge is generally a lifelong career goal, few leave the profession until their term is up or they’re no longer allowed to serve due to age or for other reasons. In most cases, a judge will remain on the bench until retirement. Although incredibly rare, some cite stagnant salaries or corrupt environments as their cause for leaving the bench early. For more information, see “Judge Career, Salary and Training Info,” AskTheJudge.info, “THE WATCHDOGS: Why Cook County judge quit after just 142 days,”and “The Law and Policy of Judicial Retirement: An Empirical Study.”
Sometimes, judges are not permitted to practice law again after leaving a judgeship if they wish to continue working. However, they can go on to teach law classes at a university, give lectures, consult, write books, or operate websites about the legal process, and many do. Others go on to run for public office or start their own businesses.