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How to Become a Judge, Mediator, or Hearing Officer

Judges, magistrate judges, magistrates, and administrative law judges are often required to have a law degree and work experience as a lawyer. For more information on how to become a lawyer, see the profile on lawyers.  

Additionally, most judges and magistrates must be either 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 years 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.

Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators learn their skills through education, training, or work experience.


For most jobs as a local, state, or federal judge, a law degree is necessary. 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. 

In some states, administrative law judges and other hearing officials do not have to be lawyers. However, federal administrative law judges must be lawyers and must pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

For mediators, arbitrators, and conciliators, education is one pathway. They can take a certificate program in conflict resolution at a college or university, a 2-year master's degree in dispute resolution or conflict management, or get a doctoral degree through a 4-year or 5-year program. Many mediators have a law degree, but master's degrees in public policy, law, and related fields also provide good backgrounds.

Work Experience

Most judges, mediators, and hearing officers get their skills through years of experience as practicing lawyers. About 40 states allow those who are not lawyers to hold limited-jurisdiction judgeships, but opportunities are better for those with law experience.

Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators are usually lawyers or business professionals with expertise in a particular field, such as construction or insurance. They need to have knowledge of that industry and be able to relate well to people from different cultures and backgrounds.


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

Training for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators is available through independent mediation programs, national and local mediation membership organizations, and postsecondary schools. To practice in state-funded or court-funded mediation programs, mediators must usually meet specific training or experience standards, which vary by state and court. Most mediators complete a 40-hour basic course and a 20-hour advanced training course. Some people get training by volunteering at a community mediation center or by co-mediating cases with an experienced mediator.


Judges who are lawyers already hold a license.

Federal administrative law judges must be licensed to practice law.

For mediators, arbitrators, and conciliators, no national license exists. State requirements vary widely. Some states require arbitrators to be experienced lawyers.


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, or becoming district court judges.

Important Qualities

Critical-reasoning skills. Judges, mediators, 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, mediators, and hearing officers must be able to weigh the facts, apply the law or rules, and make a decision relatively quickly.

Listening skills. Judges, mediators, and hearing officers must pay close attention to what is being said in order to evaluate information.

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

Writing skills. Judges, mediators, and hearing officers write recommendations or decisions on appeals or disputes. They must be able to write their decisions clearly so that all sides understand the decision.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition