December 19, 2019 Articles

Pathways to the Bench

Advice from three appellate judges.

By Daniel Kessler

On July 31, 2019, the ABA Section of Litigation Appellate Practice, Woman Advocate, and Young Advocates Committees hosted a roundtable with Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Judge Allegra Collins of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and Judge Brock Swartzle of the Michigan Court of Appeals. The judges agree that being an appellate judge can be the “greatest job in the world” but that there is no single path to the bench. If you are seeking a judicial career, the following tips from the roundtable will help you along the way. 

During Law School

What can you do in law school? Write! And find great professors.

Writing is one of the most important things that you can do to prepare yourself for a judicial career. Take legal writing courses, write for journals, and engage in appellate advocacy.

Doctrinal classes can also have a role in your education, but seek out great professors rather than a particular subject matter. Great professors will push you further.

After Law School

What can you do after school? Clerk! And volunteer.

No one will ever say, “I wish I spent another year at a firm.” Clerkships give you an understanding of the inner workings of a court, allow you to develop invaluable research and writing skills, and provide you with a mentor for life.

Find a Great Mentor

All of the judges warmly described mentors who helped them at key points in their careers. Do not presume that experienced attorneys or judges do not want to mentor you. Invite them out for coffee, or ask that they stay in touch. They will welcome your proactiveness and will provide professional and personal advice if they have been through similar situations.


Keep your ear to the ground, and let people know that you are interested in becoming a judge. Meet people, especially judges, and learn how they acquired the expertise and experience to be a judge. Tell friends and colleagues that you are interested in a judicial career. They may appreciate your honesty and let you know when they hear of opportunities that you will be interested in.


Good work gets noticed, and it helps to interact with people outside your agency or firm. Get involved with the community, especially bar associations. Judges spend a lot of time on matters that concern the law and the administration of justice. It will only help your career to start these activities before becoming a judge.

Prepare for Challenges

The process is difficult. A tough confirmation or election can take out some of the allure of the job. Talk to your family or other support network, and make sure that you are ready. However, once you have made it the bench, you can set politics aside and perform the job in a fair and neutral manner.

Be Patient

Hope that everything aligns perfectly! It is a long and difficult path to the bench. Very few attorneys reach the coveted position, so do not despair.

Concluding Words on Being a Judge

What are the panelists’ favorite parts of serving as a judge? The judges enjoy many aspects of serving on the bench, including oral argument, talking to the lawyers, and figuring out what’s going on beyond the briefs. The judges also enjoy listening to other judges and hearing their perspectives. They noted that it is sometimes difficult to understand how the legal issues came before the court, but they can be really interesting. Being a judge is intellectually stimulating, they added, and it helps if you enjoy writing and solving puzzles.

Judge Sutton noted that while in practice, lawyers help their clients. As a judge, the client is the rule of law, and judges must do their best to honor whatever that means.

Note of Appreciation

The ABA Section of Litigation Appellate Practice, Woman Advocate, and Young Advocates Committees are grateful to Judges Sutton, Collins, and Swartzle for their participation in the Pathways to the Bench roundtable discussion.

Daniel Kessler is a law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).