Magistrate Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a magistrate career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a magistrate is right for you.
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Magistrate Careers: Pros and Cons

Magistrate professionals typically handle pretrial hearings and requests, try smaller civil and criminal cases or work in specific areas like family court. Review the following pros and cons to decide if being a magistrate is the right career path for you.

Pros of a Magistrate Career
High earning potential (median salary approximately $115,000 in 2014)*
Prestige and authority of presiding over legal proceedings*
Depending on the state, a J.D. may not be required*
Magistrates usually work a 40-hour week and face few on-the-job hazards*

Cons of a Magistrate Career
Slower-than-average-job growth (2% increase from 2012-2022)*
Magistrates have more limited powers than higher-level judges do*
Weighty decisions, heavy scrutiny and feelings of isolation can make life on the bench stressful**
Jobs are often by appointment, requiring support of a higher-level judge or other authorities*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Judicature Society.

Career Information

Job Description

Magistrates work in federal district courts, as well as state and local courts. In the federal system, magistrate judges serve under district court judges. They hold initial proceedings and pretrial hearings. They can also try minor criminal cases or civil cases if the parties involved agree to it. U.S. magistrate judges are appointed by district court judges for eight-year terms if they work full-time, or four-year terms if part-time. The number of U.S. magistrate judgeships is determined by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a governing body of federal judges. There were 527 of these positions in 2011.

At the state level, magistrates' roles vary. For example, in North Carolina they may preside over proceedings and bond hearings, issue warrants and subpoenas, as well as handle traffic infractions, evictions and small claims cases. In Ohio, judges can appoint magistrates to preside in any civil or non-felony criminal case, although the parties may have to give consent. Magistrates may be appointed through elections and citizens' committees, as well as other government officials and judges.

Top Skills for Magistrates

Magistrates need to know the laws and procedures in their jurisdiction. They need to weigh conflicting claims and evidence without bias, or have the honesty to step aside when there is a conflict. Because magistrates make important decisions in the courtroom on a daily basis, they need to be effective deliberators with good reading and communication skills.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

In May 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that judges, magistrate judges and magistrates earned a median annual salary of about $115,000. Magistrates employed by state governments earned more than those employed by local governments. At the federal level, judges can earn more. In 2015, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported that district judges earned $201,000 and circuit judges earned more than $213,000. The BLS indicates that employment opportunities for these professionals were expected to increase two percent from 2012-2022. The slow growth is due to budgetary cuts and a low turnover rate.

What Are the Requirements?

Because qualifications for magistrate positions differ so much, you should begin with research into the requirements of the specific courts. Many states' court systems and state magistrates associations have websites with pages explaining what the magistrates of that state do and how to become one. U.S. magistrate judges have their own organization, the Federal Magistrate Judges Association. Once you know more about the specific jobs you may want, you can make educational and employment choices to gain legal knowledge and experience accordingly.

Typically, magistrates must have a bachelor's degree and workforce experience. However, some positions require a law degree and time spent in the legal practice. Federal magistrate judges must have at least five years experience as a lawyer and be in good standing with the state bar association. State-level requirements vary considerably. In Colorado, you need a J.D. degree and at least five years as an attorney in that state, while Delaware only requires you to be 25 years old and a state resident to take a screening exam. Every state has some kind of orientation process for new judges and magistrates, and many have continuing education requirements.

What Employers Are Looking for

Even when a law degree and membership with the bar are not required, courts prefer legal training and experience. Mastery of written and spoken English is important for magistrates, and proficiency in Spanish or another foreign language can be a plus. Background checks are typical. For example, federal magistrate judges are investigated by the FBI and IRS before they start working. The following real job postings were listed in March 2012:

  • There were two magistrate judge openings in California, both requiring five years as a practicing attorney and a bar member in good standing. Candidates needed to be less than 70 years old. The appointee would be selected by the district court from a shortlist of five candidates screened by a committee of lawyers and others.
  • The Virginia Supreme Court's Executive Secretary sought to appoint a county-based magistrate. Qualifications were a bachelor's degree, firm grasp of the law and legal system, U.S. citizenship and state residency, plus strong communication, people and computer skills. Ideal candidates would be bilingual attorneys with experience in criminal justice. The job involved occasional duty on weekends and holidays.
  • Massachusetts had three clerk-magistrate positions open in state district courts, all by appointment of the governor on recommendations of the Judicial Nominating Commission. The requirements included a bachelor's degree, which could be substituted with 15 years working in the court system, state residency, and either three years as a practicing attorney and Massachusetts bar member or five years of other relevant work experience.

How to Stand out

Even though minimum qualifications and hiring processes vary widely, there are some general qualities that those who screen judicial candidates seek. They look for evidence of commitment to public service and fairness, intellectual ability, industriousness and an even temperament. Volunteering in your community, especially for a legal services organization, may show your civic-mindedness and concern for equal justice for all.

Other Careers to Consider

Court Clerk

If the entry requirements for magistrates seem forbidding but you're still keen to work in the courts, becoming a clerk may be a good alternative. Many of these positions do not require education past high school. Court clerks schedule dockets, make arrangements with parties to cases and handle the considerable paperwork involved in legal proceedings. In May 2011, the BLS indicated that clerks earn much less than magistrates, around $34,000. The BLS also indicated that employment opportunities were only expected to increase seven percent from 2010-2020.

Paralegal

If you are interested in a legal job without a law degree, you may consider becoming a paralegal. Most paralegals work in law firms, but many also work for government agencies or corporations. They do legal research, draft documents and other work to assist attorneys. As they gain experience, their responsibilities increase. Employers typically expect an associate's degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree combined with a certificate in paralegal studies. The BLS expects employment of paralegals and legal assistants to increase 18% from 2010-2020, with a national median annual salary of almost $47,000 in May 2011.

Police Officer or Detective

If you wish to work in a different area of the criminal justice system, you may consider becoming a police officer or detective. Minimum qualifications range from a high school diploma for uniformed policing at the local level to a bachelor's degree and work experience for some federal detective roles. Police departments and investigative agencies generally screen for physical fitness, intelligence and integrity. The BLS predicts that employment opportunities for police and detectives were expected to increase just seven percent from 2010-2020, while detectives were expected to only see a three percent increase in the same period. In May 2011, the BLS reported that average salary for detectives and criminal investigators was $72,000 and $54,000 for police and sheriff's patrol officers.

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Regent University

  • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
  • Master of Arts in Law
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Saint Leo University

  • BA: Criminal Justice
  • BA: Criminal Justice - Criminalistics
  • AA: Criminal Justice

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Grand Canyon University

  • MS in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies

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Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Criminal Justice Intelligence & Crime Analysis

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Colorado Christian University

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Northcentral University

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Penn Foster

  • Career Diploma - Legal Secretary

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