Judges are often asked to explain the differences between judging and practicing law. After all, aren’t you dealing with the same legal problems only from the other side of the bench. While that’s partly true, there’s far more involved than mere positioning. Having done both, I can attest to the fact that the differences between judging and practicing are dramatic.
Becoming a judge frees one up from what Justice Holmes called “the greedy watch for clients.” No longer are you on the hunt at every moment for the next client. Social affairs are no longer a hunting ground but an opportunity for a genuine human interaction. And then there is the matter of being freed from thankless (and often tedious) demands of law firm administration, law firm meetings, petty office politics, and having to keep track of your time for billing on an almost minute-by-minute basis. (For some time after I became a judge, I found myself unconsciously calculating how many hours I spent in preparing an opinion, only to realize that it didn’t matter).
Then, there is the matter of clients. Depending on their personalities, lawyers who become judges have different reactions to the end of client involvement. Gregarious lawyers who thrive on client relationships will inevitably feel a great loss. For them, one of the joys of practicing law is their relationships with their clients. Regardless of one’s feelings about the matter, of necessity, the frequent contact that a lawyer may have had with former clients ends. Being a judge is a pretty solitary undertaking. Judges have intermittent contact with law clerks and staff, but in the main, it’s an isolating job; and there isn’t time for the socialization that occupies a good part of the time of practicing lawyers.
For others, not having clients is a blessing. No longer do they have to advance a position in which they do not believe and which they might even find repellant. The animating force in their professional lives ceases to be the narrow and parochial interests of some other person.
And finally, one of the significant differences between judging and practicing is the question of money. Judges’ salaries simply don’t begin to compare to those of successful lawyers. And basically there are no raises of any significance. Consequently, there are many qualified lawyers who would not give up practicing because of economic considerations. But values are incommensurable, and for those who have left lucrative practices for the bench, the decision almost universally has proven to be the right one.
The difference in salary – though large – pales into insignificance when compared with the joys of the job and the opportunities for intellectual satisfaction. Once you become a judge, you have the extraordinary luxury – and in the broader scheme of life that is exactly what it is – of being able to make professional decisions based not on extrinsic considerations but on doing what you believe is right under the law. Few, if any, “jobs,” other than judging, offer comparable opportunities for intellectual satisfaction and autonomy.