How to Become a Magistrate Judge: Career Guide

Find out how to become a magistrate judge. Research the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in judicial law.

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Do I Want to Be a Magistrate Judge?

Magistrate judges can preside over both federal and state court cases. At the state or county level, magistrate judges may also be called justices of the peace, municipal court judges, magistrates or county court judges. The Federal Judicial Center indicates that magistrate judges preside over many different types of legal cases, although federal magistrate judges do not preside over felony trials. Travel may be required to appear in the appropriate courts. This is a demanding position, and judges must pay undivided attention to proceedings for extended periods of time.

Job Requirements

Becoming a magistrate judge is a lengthy process that includes several years of education combined with significant experience in the legal system. At the federal level, individuals have to gain experience as lawyers prior to obtaining judgeship positions. Not all states require magistrate judges to have prior experience as lawyers, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that candidates may still have to pass state bar exams to become judges. The following table indicates the career qualifications necessary for becoming a magistrate judge, as indicated by the BLS:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Juris Doctor (JD) degree
Degree Field Law
Licensure State license to practice law (admittance to the bar)
Experience Several years' experience as a lawyer or in legal proceedings
Key Skills Comfortable reviewing legal documents, strong listening skills, ability to communicate clearly, good writing skills and ability to make difficult decisions
Computer Skills Legal databases and legal clerical software programs
Technical Skills Extensive knowledge of state and federal law and an understanding of legal precedents
Additional Requirements Willing to work in high stress situations, comfortable working extended hours and capable of being a political, public figure

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

To be accepted into law school, an individual must first obtain a bachelor's degree. Undergraduate students who plan to go to law school can earn their bachelor's degree in any field, but the American Bar Association notes that traditional undergraduate fields of study for aspiring lawyers emphasize research, analysis, critical reading, communication, public speaking and writing skills. Common pre-law fields of study include philosophy, history, English, political science, economics or business. Classes in criminal justice or law enforcement may also prove useful.

Step 2: Pass the LSAT

Law schools review several factors when selecting applicants, such as how individuals score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT, the test includes five multiple-choice sections and one written essay response section. The LSAT verifies how well students can read and comprehend information, analyze critical data and make logical decisions. Those who do not pass the test the first time are able to repeat it, and individuals who want to improve their scores can also retake the exam up to three times every two years.

Step 3: Complete Law School

It usually takes three years to complete law schooland earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Law school students are often required to complete certain core classes, such as criminal law and legal ethics. Students choose the bulk of their law school courses in accordance with their career goals or preferred field of law studies. Potential law fields include business law, environmental law, international law or public rights law.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in clinical education programs. Clinical education programs allow law students to work under the close supervision of experienced lawyers. During these supervised clinical experiences, many law students provide pro bono (free) legal services to clients. Clinical programs allow students to learn about the professional relationships between lawyers and clients, as well as between lawyers and other court officials. Clinical programs can also help students choose a preferred legal field of specialty.

Step 4: Become a Lawyer

Not all states require magistrate judges to become lawyers prior to becoming judges. However, federal magistrate judges do have to be lawyers first. To become a lawyer requires earning a JD degree from an accredited institution and becoming licensed through the state. The licensing process requires passing the state's legal bar exam in each state a person wants to practice law. As part of the licensing process, applicants usually have to prove that they are ethical citizens with clean backgrounds. Some states may have additional requirements.

Step 5: Build Legal Experience

After becoming a licensed lawyer, individuals must gain legal experience to become a judge. Entry-level lawyers at law firms are often referred to as 'associates,' and tend to work with well-accomplished lawyers who can provide guidance and instruction. Associates often develop their skills for several years before they start their own law firms or become lawyers for established businesses. Law firms sometimes offer their experienced lawyers partnership positions, which means a lawyer would be a partial owner of the law firm.

Step 6: Gain Political Support

The position of magistrate judge is often an appointed or elected position. Legal professionals who want to become magistrate judges may want to consider obtaining political support early on, although it is not required. Professionals can obtain political support in many ways, such as by networking with political parties, supporting community law enforcement or affiliating with nonprofit organizations.

Step 7: Obtain and Maintain Magistrate Judge Position

Upon becoming a magistrate judge, individuals may have to complete continuing education courses every few years in order to maintain judgeship positions. Likewise, to maintain law licenses, many state bar associations have license renewal requirements that may include completing paperwork, paying fees and participating in continuing education programs.

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