In a jurisdiction in which I practice, there is a significant judge shortage that is impacting some court operations. A notice was recently posted about the shortage and how certain courts would cease some proceedings, which is relatively unprecedented in my legal career. Each time I have met up with lawyer friends of mine over the past month or so, people have been talking about the shortage since it is on the minds of many people within the legal industry in that area.
Of course, there are reasons why the jurisdiction (and many others across the country) has a judge shortage. Some part of the issue is political since some judges can only be seated after they are nominated and confirmed by legislatures. However, one friend of mine said that the issue might be that qualified judge candidates may not want to be jurists due to the salaries and the restrictions on judges from earning additional compensation. I am relatively certain that this is not a significant reason for the judge shortage in this jurisdiction, but the input got me thinking about whether judges receive enough pay.
From my brief time researching online, I discovered that depending on the jurisdiction and type of court, judges can earn close to $200,000, or in many circumstances (including most federal judges) more. To some, this might seem like a low figure. Indeed, first-year associates at many Biglaw shops receive around this amount, and they are not even that experienced in the law. Conceivably, law school graduates can clerk for a judge and then immediately start working in Biglaw where they will receive a higher salary than the judge for whom they clerked.
However, only a small fraction of the legal profession works in Biglaw. For many attorneys, earning $200,000 or beyond is more money than they earn in private practice. Indeed, after I left Biglaw, and before I started my own law firm, I did not receive this amount of money from my law firm salary. I am willing to bet that for most lawyers a decade or two after leaving law school, a judge’s salary would be a significant amount of money.
Judicial compensation might also seem reasonable since people naturally understand that they will receive less money in the public sector than in private practice. Public defenders, prosecutors, and tons of public-interest lawyers receive far less compensation than their contemporaries who work at law firms. However, people are often willing to take a pay cut to serve the public interest. Accordingly, it is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between private sector and public-sector salaries.
Moreover, judges can often capitalize on their judicial experience to have lucrative careers in private practice after they leave the bench. In jurisdictions in which I practice, judges have mandatory retirement ages, so it is very common for judges to retire and become mediators or join law firms. In these positions, judges can receive several times the salaries that they earned in their judicial capacities. This might also justify accepting a lower salary so that someone can become a judge.
One of my friends made an interesting point about judicial compensation and said that some hardworking judges are not paid enough while some slacker judges are possibly overcompensated. To speak frankly, we all know judges who obviously perform more work than usual by reading papers, managing cases efficiently, and ensuring that their docket runs as smoothly as possible. We also all know judges who phone it in and rely more on court officers to perform much of their work.
Judges do not usually have financial bonuses based on how well they perform their jobs. Sure, judges can be reassigned based on their performance or be elevated to higher courts based on how well they perform their jobs, and these higher duties might come with a concomitant pay increase. Indeed, I know tons of judges who are keen on following standards and goals set by higher-ups so they can presumably be eligible for advancement. Still, advancement must also be a political process, and it might be difficult for judges not to get an immediate financial reward for their performance.
All told, my feeling is that judges in most situations are sufficiently paid based on the going salaries of public-interest roles and the career opportunities judges might have after leaving the bench. However, I would love to hear from judges about what they think. State and federal judges have been huge supporters of this column since I started writing, and I am genuinely interested in how judges feel about their compensation. Of course, judges perform an important role, and they might not receive the salary they would in the private sector. However, on balance, judicial pay seems reasonable in most circumstances.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.
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