Becoming a judge just might be the pinnacle of any attorney’s career. Although it is not the direction many aspire to follow at first, several Southern California jurists recently offered practical advice that would serve any attorney well throughout his or her career.
- Keep an open mind about your career path
- Work hard in law school
- Participate in moot court competitions; they’re good experience
- Cultivate a sense of equanimity
- Clerk for a judge to gain an early feel for the work; courtroom experience is a plus
- Be curious and knowledgeable about all aspects of the law
- Avoid appearances of impropriety
- Be active in your local bar association (or even in politics)
California Court of Appeal Associate Justice Douglas P. Miller had no idea what career path he wanted to follow at first. So when he was studying for his bachelor’s degree in economics in the mid-1970s, he fired off applications to graduate schools in several disciplines. He went to the first law school that accepted him.
After 18 years in private practice as a civil attorney in Southern California, Miller was appointed to the municipal court bench by former California Governor Pete Wilson in 1995. He never spent a day on the municipal bench. Those courts were being consolidated back in 1975, and Miller landed on the Riverside County Superior Court, instead. In 2006, he was appointed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the post he currently holds.
Many Paths to the Bench
Justice Miller’s story is not unique among jurists. Several started out with their eyes on other posts.
Judge Philip J. Argento had his sights set on Washington, D.C. and a seat in Congress. “I had no intention of practicing law,” he laughs, let alone seeking a seat on the bench. Argento set out on a more traditional path, getting his law degree and becoming a civil attorney at several L.A. firms for nearly six years.
When the time came, however, Argento had to weigh the uncertainties of a political career and the hardships of running for office every two years against the security of a judicial post and the needs of his growing family.
U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson was nominated to his current post in the Central District of California in December 2005, after five years as a U.S. magistrate judge hearing civil and criminal misdemeanor cases in Los Angeles and in Riverside, California. After law school, Larson went into private litigation for two years before joining the U.S. District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles. “I thought I’d be there about three years, get some trial experience and head back to private practice, but I ended up falling in love with the job,” Judge Larson recalls. Three years turned into nine, then the position on the magistrate’s bench opened up. He’s been a federal judge ever since.
Career Tips for the Bench
All offer useful bits of advice for anyone considering or attending law school, whether they aspire to the judiciary or not. Hindsight, after all is perhaps the best advice of all.
Looking back, Larson recommends working as an intern or a law clerk for a judge. “Working with my law clerks and my interns, I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to really be exposed to the entire justice system,” he says.
Justice Miller believes the most important trait in a good judge is an even temperament. Knowledge of the law and legal ability are important, Miller said, but when someone seeks his support for an appointment to the bench, “What makes a great judge, to me, is their temperament and their ability to be on the bench and handle all that goes on in the trial court,” he said.
Argento passes on advice from a jurist he once asked about the process of becoming a judge. The former judge advised him to be a good lawyer, to be active in the bar association, and to be more active in politics.
Integrity is a key factor, too. “Never do anything that’s going to detract from your integrity,” Miller advises. Judges are often warned about avoiding any appearance of impropriety, he notes. It’s wise to keep that in mind throughout your career.
“You always want to be zealous and take care of your client in an honest and ethical way,” Miller said.
“One thing I try to emphasize is that law school is way too early a time to decide what you want to do with your career,” Judge Larson notes. “You don’t know where your career is going to lead you, and you want to be opening doors in law school, not closing them … I always think it’s a mistake when someone enters law school and says, ‘I want to be a bankruptcy attorney, so that’s all I’m going to study.’ That’s a mistake.”
Statistics demonstrate that over time, it has been prosecutors who most often have ascended to judicial roles. “The most likely path to state trial court is to [start out] as a deputy district attorney or a city attorney or an assistant U.S. attorney,” Argento points out.
Public defenders also get a lot of courtroom experience, although they have not been appointed in comparable numbers, Argento said.
That has changed a bit under the current state administration. Gov. Schwarzenegger has appointed a number of public defenders and defense attorneys to the bench, a shift Justice Miller applauds. “There’s much more openness about other aspects of the legal profession that still allows you to become a judge… I hope it continues that you can go into any field, become an expert in that field, have the background and temperament and eventually still become a judge,” he said.
The money may not be as good as private practice, but jurists find the job to be intellectually stimulating and satisfying.
“Law is a wonderful career,” Larson said. “It offers a tremendous diversity in career paths, even outside of law proper – business, philanthropy, politics, whatever. It’s a wonderful skill to be able to think like a lawyer.”