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From the Bar to the Bench: Transitioning from Lawyer to Judge

November 10, 2020

 Very few people begin their careers as judges. This means that as daunting as the transition from the bar to the bench might seem, there are currently thousands of judges across the country who have made the same move. So, why not you? For many trial lawyers contemplating a career change that will enable them to remain connected to the courtroom, pursuing a judgeship is a logical move. Our legal system needs knowledgeable and impartial judges from diverse backgrounds to uphold the rule of law and ensure equal justice. So, if you’re qualified – and at minimum, that means years of trial experience and a strong understanding of state and federal laws – here are a few key issues to consider if you’re interested in making the transition.

Building a Profile and Network

Depending on the state, lawyers earn judgeships either through election or appointment. Either way, you’ll need a strong public profile and a robust network of supporters to succeed. Running for election as a judge typically requires registering for a political party, raising money and running a campaign. Maintaining a profile in the community and among peers, well in advance of when you want to become a judge will boost your chances of success. Candidates for elected judgeships should be mindful of the codes of judicial conduct and campaign finance laws that govern contribution limits and disclosure requirements in their state.

For appointed judgeships, it’s also critical to have a positive community profile and supportive network, as state legislators or other government officials who select judges typically seek recommendations from a judicial selection panel. Local bar associations may also evaluate and recommend judicial candidates. You’ll need to be on the radars of both of those groups to have a realistic shot at a judicial appointment.  

Winding Down Your Practice

Once you’ve secured a judgeship, shutting down your law practice can often be the most difficult part of the transition, particularly if you are a solo practitioner. A lawyer must find a way to wrap up pending cases before their judgeship begins, while at the same time generating income and covering expenses without taking on new work that extends beyond the start of their new career on the bench. Having to pass cases to other lawyers also means passing up much-needed income, so it’s critical that in addition to coordinating the logistics of transitioning matters, you also engage in sound advance financial planning.

Notifying clients, closing out and storing files and retaining records is time-consuming, as is shutting down and moving out of physical office space. Newly minted judges are well-served to put in the extra hours at the beginning of the transition process to get on top of these tasks so that they’re not rushing to complete them at the end.

Changing Relationships

Perhaps the biggest but often overlooked surprise in making the switch from lawyer to judge is that it can feel isolating to spend time alone in chambers, rather than in the hallways, interacting with other lawyers. Judges generally aren’t able to socialize as widely with legal colleagues because of potential questions of impartiality that might disqualify the judge from hearing cases in which the lawyers are involved. So, something once as casual and innocuous as grabbing lunch with other lawyers is now off the table if it’s likely that they’ll appear in your court.

“I still maintain friendships with my closest friends, whom I insist don’t treat me differently because I’m a judge,” says a juvenile and domestic relations judge in Richmond, Virginia, on the bench since July 2020. “I do miss everyone else, but I still see them occasionally when they appear in my courtroom.” 

Seek Advice from Judges

If you’re interested in becoming a judge, it doesn’t hurt to seek advice from current or retired judges, many of whom are happy to discuss their experiences.  These discussions will also give you the opportunity to demonstrate that you have the demeanor for such a position.

In many states, you may also have the opportunity to take a potential new career for a test drive. Lawyers in some states are often asked to serve as substitute judges, enabling them to dip a toe in the water and get a glimpse of what a judge’s day-to-day routine would be.

Many judges also advise that possessing the so-called “soft skills” is nearly as important as interpreting and administering the law. After all, there are a great many attorneys with the legal acumen to serve on the bench, but far fewer have both the skill and the temperament and patience to do so effectively. A good judge will deal with people in a way that demonstrates empathy and treats everyone with respect. It is important to ensure that everyone feels that they had a fair day in court and their case received the attention that it deserves, regardless of whether the judge’s ruling was in their favor.

Finally, lawyers should pursue judgeships for the right reasons – because of a desire to uphold due process and make fair decisions that have a direct impact on all who come into the courtroom.

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