I often see ads on job boards seeking “certified” paralegals. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So what does it mean for someone to be a “certified” paralegal?
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), a “certified” paralegal is one who has successfully completed a certification exam or other requirements of a certifying organization. Professional certification is a voluntary process by which a nongovernmental entity grants a time-limited recognition to an individual after verifying that the individual has met predetermined, standardized criteria.
This is not the same as being awarded a certificate after completion of a formal educational program in paralegal studies. Such an individual is – in the ABA’s words –“certificated in paralegal studies.” While some people – even paralegals themselves – mislabel certificated paralegals as “certified,” obtaining a certificate of completion from a school is not the same as earning professional certification.
So how does a paralegal go about becoming “certified”? There are two national organizations that are in the forefront of paralegal certification.
The first is the National Association of Legal Assistants. NALA began awarding the Certified Paralegal (CP) certification in 1976. Currently, there are 18,289 Certified Paralegals in the United States, with 1,238 hailing from California.
To obtain the CP credential, paralegals who meet eligibility requirements—based on education and experience—take a five-part examination covering communications, ethics, legal research, judgment and analytical ability, and substantive law. The substantive law section includes four mini-examinations in the areas of the American legal system, civil litigation, business organizations, and contracts. The test for each section takes one-and-a-half to two hours to complete. To maintain the credential, CPs must participate in a minimum of fifty hours of continuing legal education programs every five years, with five of those hours in ethics.
Beginning in 1982, NALA began a program to recognize CP’s specialized knowledge in a various area of practice. By completing a 20-hour curriculum-based program, CPs can earn an Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) credential in a wide variety of practice areas: contracts management/contracts administration, discovery, social security disability, trial practice, alternative dispute resolution, business organizations, trademarks, personal injury, land use, criminal litigation, commercial bankruptcy, family law, real estate, and e-discovery.
The second organization that certifies paralegals is the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. NFPA’s Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE®), established in 1996, is for those with not only a comprehensive education in paralegal studies, but also years of practical experience. The four-hour exam covers tasks that experienced paralegals routinely perform, organized into five domains: administration of client legal matters, development of client legal matters, factual and legal research, factual and legal writing, and office administration. Ethics are included in all of the above domains, as are technology and terminology.
Successful applicants are awarded the PACE Registered Paralegal (RP) certification. RPs need twelve hours of CLE every two years, with one hour being ethics, to maintain certification.
NFPA also offers the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE) to assess the knowledge, skills, and ability of early-career and entry-level paralegals. Applicants who pass a two-and-a-half-hour exam covering paralegal practice and substantive law garner the CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) certification. CRPs need eight hours of CLE every two years, with one hour being ethics.
So paralegals: Are you certified? If not, consider taking the next step to advance your career and demonstrate your professionalism.
Attorneys: Encourage your paralegals to seek certification. Your employees will have higher job satisfaction, your clients will have greater confidence in your staff, and you’ll have more ammunition when you seek to recover paralegal fees as costs.
About the author:
Daniel B. Pleasant, ACP, is treasurer of the Executive Committee of BASF’s Paralegal Section and a writer and editor at Rouda, Feder, Tietjen & McGuinn. He was certified by the National Association of Legal Assistants in 2002 as a Certified Paralegal, and has earned advanced certification in discovery, trial practice, and California civil procedure. Pleasant focuses on writing mediation briefs, drafting motions and appellate briefs, and preparing cases for trial.