Paralegals assist attorneys with a wide range of tasks such as conducting legal research, preparing documents, handling case evidence, and putting to use their knowledge of the American legal system. Due to advances in technology, paralegals are also tasked with learning the most current software and databases used in the legal system so that their employers are up to date and prepared when they go to court. Because competition for jobs in the field of paralegal studies is very strong, most attorneys prefer to hire paralegals that have certification in the field, as this emphasizes the applicant’s knowledge base and skills in performing the variety of duties they must perform on a daily basis .
Most paralegals hold at least an associate’s degree, and those who have earned a bachelor’s degree may enjoy the highest wages in the field. Although a degree associated with criminal justice is preferred, many enter the field with a degree in another discipline and then earn certification, as this provides expertise in the field and demonstrates they are more than capable of performing the specific tasks the role requires.
While state laws do not require certification to work as a paralegal, it is often used by employers as a prerequisite of employment, and those without certification may not be considered for a position in the hiring process.
It’s important to note that in lieu of a degree, students may earn a certificate, which is generally a six month to one-year program in legal studies that results in a diploma. These certificate programs are different than professional certifications, which this article primarily covers. If you already have a degree, or want to enter the field rapidly, a certificate from a community college or four-year university may do the trick, though employers may prefer candidates with a two- or-four-year degree in another subject plus a certificate in legal or paralegal studies.
There are four agencies that offer professional certification for prospective paralegals in the United States:
The National Association of Paralegals (NALA) has a competency exam for prospective paralegals. Once the exam has been successfully passed the person is awarded the Certified Paralegal designation. NALA also administers an advanced exam called the Advanced Specialty Certification which covers expertise in specific areas of the field such as ethics, legal analysis, written communications and legal research. The NALA certification is time limited, meaning once certified the paralegal must renew periodically and earn continuing education units in the field to stay current.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) awards the Registered Paralegal designation to those who have passed their rigorous exam. The exam covers five topic areas: Development of Client Legal Matters, Administration of Client Legal Matters, Factual and Legal Research, Factual and Legal Writing, and Office Administration. All of the exam topics include ethics, terminology and technology. The NFPA also has specific educational requirements one must have finished before being allowed to take the exam.
The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS) offers two certifications for paralegals: The Accredited Legal Professional Certification (ALP) designation for students and entry-level paralegals, and the Professional Paralegal Certification (PP) for those who are graduating from an approved paralegal program or have five years’ experience in the field. The PP exam demonstrates complete knowledge of legal terminology, procedures and substantive law and identifies the holder as being exceptional in all areas of the paralegal field.
The American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI) awards the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) designation to those who have passed the exam. Applicants must have five years experience working as a paralegal as well as meet specific educational requirements before they are qualified to sit for the AAPI exam. Once certified a paralegal must complete 18 hours of continuing education every three years in order to maintain their certification.
In addition to the national certifications for paralegals, three State Bars have certification programs: Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. While not a legal requirement to work as a paralegal, residents of those states should consider also taking the state exam in order to show additional expertise in the field on all levels.
How to Become Certified
Although a degree isn’t required by all certification programs, all of the exams are quite detailed and require extensive knowledge in the paralegal field. The best way to attain this knowledge is by completing your degree in paralegal or legal studies or by earning an advanced degree in a related field, such as criminal justice.
Here’s a quick guide to the steps you should take to become a paralegal and take a certification exam
- Choose your specialty. Just as attorneys specialize in a certain area of the law, paralegals need to focus on a specific type of practice such as corporate law, estate law or criminal law (among many other specializations available).
- Enroll in a paralegal studies program. While it is possible to become a paralegal and take a national exam after completing a certification program dedicated to paralegal studies, most paralegals hold at least an associate’s degree. To compete for the best positions, you should plan to earn your bachelor’s degree to demonstrate a full range of knowledge in the field.
- Work as an intern in a law firm or legal department. This is often part of your degree program and will not only give you experience in the field it will help you determine whether you’ve chosen the specialty that is right for you.
- Study for the certification exam. Your student advisor will recommend which exam you should take and whether you should consider taking more than one; in addition, you can check with attorneys in your area to determine which certification is most in demand by those who hire paralegals.
- Complete continuing education. Keep in mind that once certified you will need to take continuing education courses in order to maintain your certification. In addition, your employer may require you to take certain courses in order to become more knowledgeable on certain areas of their practice or to utilize new technology as it is introduced into the law firm.
Although by theory you can become a paralegal without any formal training, the truth is that the field is very competitive and requires extensive knowledge in a wide range of subjects such as legal analysis, ethics, legal research, written communications, civil litigation and contracts. By passing a certification exam given by a national paralegal organization you will demonstrate you are proficient in the wide range of duties that will be required by the attorney who hires you, and gain the respect of your peers in the field.
When you apply to take your certification exam, you will have to pay a fee, and perhaps join the professional body that governs your credential. Then, you will have to sit for the exam. The exams are not made equally, with the shortest test-taking time being two and a half hours for the NFPA’s CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP). The longest test-taking time is up to two years for NALA’s CP/CLA exam which is comprised of five major sections and four practice areas. You will have two years to complete all of the sections. NALS’ PP exam should take one full day.
The exams are all different, so study the materials specific to your chosen credential. However, you should be well-versed in areas including but not limited to the following topics:
- U.S. Legal System
- Legal Writing
- Legal Critical Analysis
- Civil Litigation – Torts
- Client Legal Matters
- Legal Research
- Federal Law
- Legal Terminology
- Criminal Law and Procedures
Paralegals do not currently have a state licensing requirement, with one exception: The Washington State Bar Association has implemented the Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT) credential to help lower-income families receive lower-cost legal help from a licensed professional. LLLTs are currently only able to help families through divorce, child custody matters and other family issues in the state of Washington. However, the Washington State Bar does anticipate licensing legal technicians to work in other areas of law in the future.
The Washington Bar has the following requirements for its legal technicians:
- 45 credit hours in an ABA-approved legal program
- Complete practice-area courses through the University of Washington’s School of Law
- Complete three thousand hours as a paralegal
- Pass the Practice Area and Professional Responsibility Exams
The Washington State model is being considered by many other states, so it is worth your while to consider their pioneering program even if you live in another state. You might consult your state’s bar association to see if they are moving towards such a licensure program.
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