Certification vs. Paralegal Certificate
The terms certificate and certification get thrown around a lot in the world of paralegal work. While the two terms may seem interchangeable, they actually mean two very different things:
- Certificate – This term refers to an educational program
- Certification – This term refers to a professional designation that can be obtained through a vetting process that involves passing an exam
Many paralegal education programs are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA approves paralegal certificate programs as well as associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees in paralegal studies. ABA approval is not required, but it is nationally recognized as a “stamp of approval.” As a result, many employers opt for job candidates who have earned a degree or certificate through an ABA-approved school.
Types of Certificates
There are different types of certificates you can attain when pursuing a career as a paralegal, including:
Academic Certificates in Paralegal Studies
Academic certificates can take several forms, including:
- Entry-level paralegal programs for students who have already earned a high school diploma
- Post-associate or post-baccalaureate programs for career changers
- Post-associate or post-baccalaureate programs for practicing paralegals who want to specialize in a specific area of law
There are a variety of certificate programs, which can range anywhere from 9 to 18 months in length, across a number of institutions. Depending on the type of program you are interested in, you could attend a community college, business school, proprietary institution, or a four-year college/university. Along with full-time and on-campus programs, many programs are available online, part-time, or accelerated to accommodate working professionals. In addition, paralegal certificate programs can focus on a generalized course of paralegal studies or a specific area of law.
Professional Paralegal Certification
A voluntary professional paralegal certification is pursued by many in the field because it helps set candidates apart in the job searching process. Professional paralegal certification can be attained through a national certifying organization, like:
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) – Offers CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential (CRP) and PACE Registered Paralegal credential (RP)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) – Offers Certified Paralegal (CP) credential and Advanced Paralegal (AP) credential
- NALS – The Association for Legal Professionals – Offers Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
- American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI) – Offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential
In addition, some states have also developed state-specific competency examinations with state bar associations and/or paralegal associations.
Eligibility Requirements for Professional Paralegal Certification Exams
Professional certification means you have been formally recognized as a paralegal professional because you have met certain requirements. This includes meeting specific educational requirements, gaining professional experience, and/or passing an examination. Like a professional certificate, professional certification is voluntary. Those in the field can serve as paraprofessionals without it. However, it will certainly help you attain the skills you need to be successful as a paralegal, as well as set you apart when finding a job.
If you are interested in taking a professional paralegal certification exam, there are some eligibility requirements you will need to meet. The requirements vary depending on the certification exam you take. For example, if you want to sit for NFPA’s CORE Competency Exam, you must possess at least one of the following:
- A bachelor’s degree in any subject and a paralegal certificate, a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor’s degree in any subject and no paralegal certificate, along with at least 6 months of experience and 1 hour of ethics taken in the previous year
- An associate’s degree in paralegal studies, an associate’s degree in any subject and a paralegal certificate, or an associate’s degree in any subject and at least 1 year of experience and 6 hours of continuing legal education, including at least 1 hour of ethics taken in the previous year
- A paralegal certificate from an NFPA approved program, 1 year of experience, and at least 6 hours of continuing legal education, including at least 1 hour of ethics taken in the previous year
- A high school diploma or GED, at least 5 years of experience, and 12 hours of continuing legal education, including at least 1 hour of ethics taken in the previous year
Professional Paralegal Certification Examination
Once you meet the eligibility requirements, they must take and pass the certification examination. The contents, requirements, and passing scores can vary from one exam to another. For example, NALA’s Certified Paralegal examination is organized into five sections, each covering general knowledge and skills expected of a modern paralegal. This general knowledge and skills includes:
- Judgment and Analytical Ability
- Legal Research
- Substantive Law, including American legal systems, business organizations and contracts, and civil litigation
Paralegal Certification Renewal
In addition to receiving certification, paralegals must also maintain their certification through a renewal process, typically every five years. This renewal involves gaining a number of continuing legal education (CLE) hours. NALA, for example, requires certification holders to complete at least 50 hours of CLE, including at least five hours of legal ethics, during each five-year renewal period.
Advanced Certification Options for Paralegals
If you already hold an advanced degree or extensive experience, you should consider advanced certification options. This type of certification will showcase your advanced standing in the paralegal profession. There are two advanced options available:
- NFPA’s PACE Registered Paralegal (RP) Credential– You can achieve the RP credential through NFPA by meeting specific education and experience requirements, including taking and passing the PACE exam.
- NALA’s Advanced Paralegal (AP) Credential– You can earn NALA’s AP credential by completing a self-study program through NALA. The curriculum-based program includes detailed exercises and an assessment in a preferred practice area.
Accredited vs. Non-Accredited Programs
When applying for a paralegal certificate program, you may encounter something that is accredited or non-accredited, and it can leave you feeling confused as to which one to sign up for.
Put simply, an accredited paralegal certificate program is something that’s recognized by the American Bar Association or any other similar accrediting body or agency. On the other hand, a non-accredited program is not recognized.
This does not mean, however, that a non-accredited program is not an effective program for a paralegal student. Sometimes, it could mean that the school offering it does not have the money to ask the American Bar Association or any other body or agency to look at their program and give it the thumbs up. Even a non-accredited paralegal certificate program may still meet high standards. However, it’s not unlikely for some lawyers or law firms to favor applicants who have successfully completed accredited paralegal certificate programs.
How To Get Started
If you are looking to set yourself apart as a paralegal in this profession, consider pursuing and attaining certification or a paralegal certificate. Be sure to check out the other pages on this helpful site for more information on the different career paths you can take as a paralegal.
*The information provided in this article should not be considered legal advice that can only come from a qualified attorney. Paralegals may not provide legal advice except where permitted by law.