The American Bar Association defines certification as “a process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition to an individual who has met certain predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association.” Certification usually involves passing an examination established by the sponsoring organization and meeting specified educational and/or experiential requirements.
Presently, certification for paralegals is a voluntary process; no mandatory examination for legal assistants exist in the United States. However, the certification issue has been a subject of considerable interest and debate for the past several years among paralegal organizations, bar associations, and state legislatures.
A paralegal certification demonstrates to employers a commitment to the profession and a mastery of certain skills and knowledge necessary to the field. Skills and knowledge tested by certification examinations include an advanced knowledge of legal procedure, ethics, and substantive law as well as research, communication and writing skills.
Many paralegals obtain professional designations after they have gained a few years of experience in the field. While certification is not a prerequisite to paralegal employment, it may enhance your professional credibility, employment prospects, and income potential. Below is an overview of several common paralegal certifications.
National Association of Legal Assistants
Issuing Body: The National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. (NALA), headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began sponsoring a certification examination (Certified Legal Assistant) in 1976. NALA also offers advanced specialty exams.
Designation: Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP). Over 12,000 paralegals have earned the use of this professional designation. In 2004, NALA registered the mark "CP" for those who prefer to use the term "paralegal" instead of "legal assistant."
Eligibility Requirements: To be eligible for the CLA/CP examination, a legal assistant must meet one of the following alternate requirements:
1. Graduation from a legal assistant program that is:
- Approved by the American Bar Association; or
- An associate degree program; or
- A post-baccalaureate certificate program in legal assistant studies; or
- A bachelor's degree program in legal assistant studies; or
- A legal assistant program which consists of a minimum of 60 semester hours (900 clock hours or 90 quarter hours) of which at least 15 semester hours (225 clock hours or 22.5 quarter hours) are substantive legal courses.
2. A bachelor's degree in any field plus one year's experience as a legal assistant. Successful completion of at least 15 semester hours (or 22.5 quarter hours or 225 clock hours) of substantive legal assistant courses will be considered equivalent to one year's experience as a legal assistant.
3. A high school diploma or equivalent plus seven (7) years' experience as a legal assistant under the supervision of a member of the Bar, plus evidence of a minimum of 20 hours of continuing legal education credit to have been completed within a 2-year period prior to the examination date.
Examination. The CLA/CP examination is a two-day comprehensive examination based on federal law and procedure. The major subject areas of the examination are Communications, Ethics, Legal Research, Human Relations and Interviewing Techniques, Judgment & Analytical Ability and Legal Terminology. The substantive law section consists of five mini-examinations covering the American Legal System and four areas of substantive law as selected by examinees.
National Federation of Paralegal Associations
Issuing Body: The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA) offers the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE).
Designation: "PACE - Registered Paralegal" or "RP”
- An associate's degree in paralegal studies obtained from an institutionally accredited school, and/or ABA approved paralegal education program; six (6) years substantive paralegal experience; OR
- A bachelor's degree in any course of study obtained from an institutionally accredited school and three (3) years of substantive paralegal experience; OR
- A bachelor's degree and completion of a paralegal program with an institutionally accredited school, said paralegal program may be embodied in a bachelor's degree; and two (2) years substantive paralegal experience; OR
- Four (4) years substantive paralegal experience on or before December 31, 2000.
Examination: The Paralegal Competency Examination (PACE) is a two-tiered exam. Tier I addresses general legal issues and ethics. As the need arises, a section for state-specific laws may also be developed. Tier II addresses specialty sections.
The National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)
Issuing Body: The NALS (formerly known as the National Association for Legal Secretaries), offers three certifications: the ALS (its basic certification), the PP (for paralegals) and the PLS (an advanced certification).
Designations: ALS, PP, and PLS
ALS - To be eligible to take the ALS exam, you must have completed one of the following:
- an accredited business/legal course,
- the NALS Legal Training Course, or
- one year of general office experience.
PP - To sit for the PP certification exam, a non-degreed paralegal must have five years’ experience performing paralegal/legal assistant duties. A paralegal with a post-secondary degree, other certification or a paralegal certificate must only have four years’ experience, while a candidate with a paralegal degree need only have three years’ experience.
PLS - Any person with three years' experience in the legal field may take the examination. Membership in NALS is not a requirement. A partial waiver of the three-year legal experience requirement may be granted for post-secondary degrees, successful completion of the ALS exam or other certifications. The maximum waiver is one year.
ALS - The ALS is a 3-part exam covering written communications; office procedures and legal knowledge; and human relations and judgment.
PP - The PP certification exam is administered in four parts and covers written communications, legal knowledge and skills, ethics and judgment skills and substantive law. Candidates may retake any failed portions of the exam.
Recertification is required every five years but may be accomplished through the accumulation of continuing legal education hours and activities
PLS – The PLS exam is a one-day, four-part examination which is broken down as follows: Part 1 - Written Communications, Part 2: Office Procedures and Technology, Part 3: Ethics and Judgment and Part 4: Legal Knowledge and Skills.
American Alliance of Paralegals
Issuing Body: The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI)
Eligibility Requirements: Every paralegal seeking American Alliance certification must possess no less than five (5) years of substantive paralegal experience and meet one (1) of the following three (3) educational criteria:
(a) A Bachelor or advanced Degree in any discipline from an accredited institution; or
(b) An Associate Degree in paralegal studies from an ABA approved paralegal program or a program which is a voting institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education; or
(c) A Certificate from an ABA approved paralegal program or a program which is a voting institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education.
To prove that you fulfill the eligibility requirements, the AAPI requires candidates to submit, along with a processing fee, a certified copy of official educational transcripts and an affidavit or declaration from an attorney attesting to your substantive work experience.
Maintenance/Recertification: In order to maintain American Alliance certification, every AACP shall renew his/her certification status every two (2) years and complete eighteen (18) hours of continuing legal education (“CLE”), with two (2) of the eighteen (18) hours being in ethics. Proof of completion of the requisite CLE along with the two-year renewal fee in effect at the time of renewal shall be submitted to the Commission. At the time of renewal, an AACP must be employed as a paralegal.