One of the most common dreams that trial lawyers cultivate over the first half of a career is the eventual transition to a position as a judge. It’s not a role for everyone, nor is the goal universal, but for many who choose to focus on litigation, it’s an end goal. Not only does the position come with widespread professional esteem and new opportunities to rise through the state and federal court systems, it also provides idealistic attorneys with an opportunity to help clarify areas of the law through their careful administration of its provisions. This is attractive for a lot of reasons, for the right people. Unfortunately, finding a path to a judicial appointment can be difficult, especially for those with no previous experience on the bench. Luckily, it’s not the only way to get there.
Many county and state court systems rely on judicial elections for positions ranging from traffic magistrates to circuit court judges, providing a way in for attorneys who have robust experience and want an opportunity to enter civil service while taking a step forward in their careers. These positions can help set up one’s resume for an appointment later, even if you decide to return to private practice later. They can also be a good way to gain the experience needed to obtain a teaching position, and teaching in a prestigious law firm can be a good way to gain the recognition needed to get a judicial appointment, too. Elections depend a lot on the local political environment, though, which often means navigating an alien system to attorneys who have not worked on campaigns or in electoral politics before.
Most of the time, running for office means foregoing the practice of law as an attorney for the duration of your term. For those operating a private practice with a single attorney, that might mean temporarily or even permanently shuttering. For others, it might mean stepping back from a partnership. This can be an expensive option, so it is not one to be taken lightly. At the same time, though, some judicial positions are part-time and do allow for practice in areas of the law where you are not likely to have conflicts of interest. If you are not financially secure enough to handle a reduction in pay, it might not be time to make the move.
Many successful litigators do make the move to the bench, including many civil attorneys like Mike Tawil of Ossining, NY, whose practice revolved around injury and medical malpractice. What most of them report as surprising is the challenge of living a public life. Judges in the U.S. are not usually famous, but they are public figures, known to local politicians and major players in industry. This means:
- Personal scrutiny by the public during and sometimes between elections
- Local media attention during controversial cases
- Adoption of party affiliation, for organizing and fund-raising purposes
These additional elements of running for a judicial office at the local or state level can sometimes be a deal-breaker for otherwise qualified attorneys. It’s very important that you consider all of them before deciding to move forward, to make sure you’re ready to make this leap. On the other hand, if you do tread carefully and you run, being fully ready and having open eyes about the trade-offs can help make your bid more persuasive.