What Does a Judge Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills & More

A day in the life of a judge: Listening, critical thinking, problem solving, writing

The Balance / Theresa Chiechi

Judges interpret and apply laws and precedents to determine outcomes or make rulings on legal matters. They often oversee trials, hearings, and other legal proceedings to make sure they're handled fairly under the law. Some judges are appointed, and others are elected.

Judge Duties & Responsibilities

The job generally requires the ability to do the following:

  • Interpret the law to determine how a trial will proceed
  • Interpret and apply laws or precedents to reach judgments and to resolve disputes between parties or determine the outcome of other types of issues
  • Instruct jurors on how to consider facts from evidence presented in trials
  • Read and evaluate information from motions, claim applications, records, and other documents
  • Write opinions, decisions, and instructions regarding cases, claims, and disputes
  • Preside over administrative hearings and read opposing arguments
  • Participate in settlement or plea negotiations in advance of trial
  • Conduct preliminary proceedings in criminal cases
  • Approve search and arrest warrants

Judges preside over cases that might involve traffic offenses, civil disagreements, or business disputes. When a jury must decide the outcome, a judge issues instructions on applicable laws and hears the verdict.

Judge Salary

A judge's salary can vary depending on location, experience, and whether they work for the federal, state, or local government.

  • Median Annual Salary: $133,920 (Judges/Magistrate Judges); $99,850 (Administrative Law Judges)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $193,330 (Judges/Magistrate Judges); $169,640 (Administrative Law Judges)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $34,790 (Judges/Magistrate Judges); $45,120 (Administrative Law Judges)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training, & Certification

Most judges come to the bench from careers as lawyers, but in some states, non-lawyers can be limited-jurisdiction judges.

  • Education: To become a lawyer, you must earn a professional degree in law, usually a Juris Doctor (JD) from a law school after first earning a bachelor's degree. You can expect to spend four years working on your bachelor's degree followed by three years in law school. Law degree programs include courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing.
  • Licensing: In many states, judges must be licensed to practice law and must be a member of that state's bar.
  • Exams: In addition to earning a law degree, federal administrative law judges have to pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  • Additional training: All states provide new judges with judicial education and training that lasts about three weeks. Some states require judges to take continuing education courses while they are serving on the bench.

Judge Skills & Competencies

Those who want to become judges must have certain qualities, also called soft skills. They include:

  • Listening: Judges must be able to listen carefully to what participants are saying during trials and hearings.
  • Critical Thinking: The ability to carefully evaluate information when making a decision is essential.
  • Problem Solving: Judges must be able to recognize, identify and then solve problems.
  • Reading Comprehension: Judges need to be able to understand complex documents.
  • Verbal Communication: It is imperative that the instructions that judges provide during a hearing or trial are clear.
  • Writing: Judges must clearly write decisions and instructions.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth for judges will be 5% from 2016 and 2026, which is slightly lower than the 7% average job growth for all occupations.

Government budget concerts could limit job growth for judges working for local, state, and federal government agencies.

Work Environment

Most of the work of a judge is done in offices and courtrooms. Often, they must sit in the same position in the court or hearing room for long periods of time and pay careful attention to the proceedings the whole time. Some judges may be required to travel to different courthouses.

Work Schedule

Some judges generally work during the business day, but many courts also have evening and weekend hours. Judges sometimes have to issue warrants and restraining orders during non-business hours as well, including during nights and weekends.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in becoming a judge might also consider the following jobs, listed with their median salary:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018