Judges and hearing officers apply the law by overseeing the legal process in courts. They also conduct pretrial hearings, resolve administrative disputes, facilitate negotiations between opposing parties, and issue legal decisions.

Duties

Judges and hearing officers typically do the following:

  • Research legal issues
  • Read and evaluate information from documents, such as motions, claim applications, and records
  • Preside over hearings and listen to and read arguments by opposing parties
  • Determine if the information presented supports the charge, claim, or dispute
  • Decide if the procedure is being conducted according to the rules and law
  • Apply laws or precedents to reach judgments and to resolve disputes between parties
  • Write opinions, decisions, and instructions regarding cases, claims, and disputes

Judges commonly preside over trials and hearings of cases regarding nearly every aspect of society, from individual traffic offenses to issues concerning the rights of large corporations. Judges listen to arguments and determine whether the evidence presented deserves a trial. In criminal cases, judges may decide that people charged with crimes should be held in jail until the trial, or they may set conditions for their release. They also approve search and arrest warrants.

Judges interpret the law to determine how a trial will proceed, which is particularly important when unusual circumstances arise for which standard procedures have not been established. They ensure that hearings and trials are conducted fairly and that the legal rights of all involved parties are protected.

In trials in which juries are selected to decide the case, judges instruct jurors on applicable laws and direct them to consider the facts from the evidence. For other trials, judges decide the case. A judge who determines guilt in criminal cases may impose a sentence or penalty on the guilty party. In civil cases, the judge may award relief, such as compensation for damages, to the parties who win lawsuits.

Judges use various forms of technology, such as electronic databases and software, to manage cases and to prepare for trials. In some cases, a judge may manage the court’s administrative and clerical staff.

The following are examples of types of judges and hearing officers:

Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates preside over trials and hearings. They typically work in local, state, and federal courts.

In local and state court systems, they have a variety of titles, such as municipal court judge, county court judge, magistrate, and justice of the peace. Traffic violations, misdemeanors, small-claims cases, and pretrial hearings make up the bulk of these judges' work.

In federal and state court systems, district court judges and general trial court judges have authority over any case in their system. Appellate court judges rule on a small number of cases, by reviewing decisions of the lower courts and lawyers’ written and oral arguments.

Hearing officers, also known as administrative law judges or adjudicators, usually work for government agencies. They decide many issues, such as if a person is eligible for workers' compensation benefits, and if employment discrimination occurred.

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Work Environment

Judges and hearing officers held about 43,200 jobs in 2012. All were employed by federal, state, and local government.

Judges and hearing officers do most of their work in offices and courtrooms. Their jobs can be demanding, because they must sit in the same position in the court or hearing room for long periods and give undivided attention to the process.

Some judges and hearing officers may be required to travel to different counties and courthouses throughout their state.

Work Schedules

Most judges and hearing officers work full time, but many often work longer hours to prepare for hearings. Some judges and hearing officers work part time and divide their time between their judicial responsibilities and other careers.

Judges also have to be on-call during nights or weekends to issue emergency orders, such as search warrants and restraining orders.

Education and Training

Judges and hearing officers must typically have a law degree and work experience as a lawyer.

Education

A law degree is required for most jobs as a local, state, or federal judge or hearing officer.

In addition to a law degree, federal administrative law judges must also pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Getting a law degree usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate study, followed by 3 years of law school. Law degree programs include courses, such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing. For more information on how to become a lawyer, see the profile on lawyers.

Most judges and magistrates must be appointed or elected into judge positions, a procedure that often takes 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. Some local and state judges are elected to a specific term, commonly 4 years, in an election process.

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.

Training

All states have some type of orientation for newly elected or appointed judges. The Federal Judicial Center, American Bar Association, The National Judicial College, and the 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

Judges who are lawyers already hold a license.

Federal administrative law judges must be licensed to practice law.

Advancement

Advancement for some judicial workers means moving to courts with a broader jurisdiction. Advancement for various hearing officers includes taking on more complex cases, starting businesses, practicing law, and becoming district court judges.

Personality and Interests

Judges and hearing officers typically have an interest in the Helping and Persuading interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Helping or Persuading interest which might fit with a career as a judge and hearing officer, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Judges and hearing officers should also possess the following specific qualities:

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.

Decision-making 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 must pay close attention to what is being said, to evaluate information.

Reading skills. Judges and hearing officers must be able to evaluate and distinguish the important facts from large amounts of sometimes complex information.  

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.

Pay

The median annual wage for judges, magistrate judges and magistrates was $115,760 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,060, and the top 10 percent earned more than $166,880.

The median annual wage for administrative law judges, adjudicators and hearing officers was $87,240 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,330, and the top 10 percent earned more than $154,380.

Most judges and hearing officers work full time, and many often work longer hours to prepare for case hearings. Some judges and hearing officers work part time and divide their time between their judicial responsibilities and other careers.                                  

Judges also have to be on-call during nights or weekends to issue emergency orders, such as search warrants and restraining orders.

Job Outlook

Employment of judges and hearing officers is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022.

The number of federal and state judgeships is projected to remain steady because nearly every new position for a judge must be authorized and approved by legislature.

Budgetary constraints in federal, state, and local governments are expected to limit the employment growth of hearing officers and administrative law judges, despite the continued need for these workers to settle disputes.

Job Prospects

The prestige associated with becoming a judge will ensure continued competition for these positions. Most job openings will arise as a result of judges and hearing officers leaving the occupation because of retirement, to teach, or because it’s the end of their elected term.

For More Information

For more information about state courts and judgeships, visit

National Center for State Courts

For more information about federal judges, visit

Administrative Office of the United States Courts

For more information about judicial education and training for judges and other judicial branch personnel, visit

Federal Judicial Center

American Bar Association

The National Judicial College

FAQ

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