Here’s how much trial experience judges think an attorney should have before taking the bench
By Anna-Leigh Firth
At least six years, but nearly half of judges think the prerequisite should be 10 years.
That’s the verdict from our monthly one-question survey emailed to NJC alumni. Sent out just after Labor Day, this month’s question asked: “How many years of trial experience should an attorney be required to have before taking the bench?”
Judges were given a choice of ranges of years: 0-2, 3-5, 6-9 or 10 or more. More than a thousand judges responded. Nearly half chose 10 years or more and another 31 percent picked 6-9. So, combined, nearly 80 percent saw six years as the minimum.
“I have seen many attorneys run for the position of judge stating that they have a law degree and that qualifies them,” commented one judge, anonymously, as was the case with all who left comments. “When they take the bench, they have no idea as to what to do. It is a whole new world on this side of the bench.”
Wrote another: “Being smart is a wonderful thing, but there is no substitute for experience. Judges who take the bench with little or no trial experience have no point of reference for what happens in court and no empathy or understanding for what the trial lawyers are dealing with.”
Prior legal practice is a prerequisite for some state and federal judgeships, but it’s not known if any jurisdiction requires a certain amount of prior trial experience.
Some who commented in the survey said judges need not only trial experience but that the experience should relate to the types of cases they’re going to hear.
“Business court judges need business court experience,” declared one.
Not everyone placed a premium on trial experience, though. Roughly 7 percent voted for 0-2 years. Some of those judges pointed out that other qualities are important for taking the bench.
“Being a good judge has more to do with character and the ability to be a quick study rather than specific judicial experience,” wrote one judge.
“The more important experiences and skills, in my opinion, are managing people, listening and research,” wrote another.
Ultimately, it takes more than experience as a trial attorney to be a good judge, one judge wrote.
“Being familiar with court procedures, practices, and rules is … very important, but being a judge is so much different from appearing before a judge that learning how to be a good judge mostly comes from on-the-job training, mentoring and courses by and for judges, such as those offered at the NJC.”