Paralegal certification in the United States is voluntary at present, but certified paralegals or those who have a specialized education in paralegal studies hold a clear advantage. A certificate awarded by a professional paralegal organization can be advantageous in the job market. Employers that require certification of their paralegals usually offer better salaries and other benefits. If you are a job candidate who has gone to the trouble of becoming certified, you are showing prospective employers that you are serious in your professional aspirations. In addition, it assures them that you have mastered the necessary knowledge and skills required for success in the legal profession.
Before you begin your certification program, you will want to take into consideration the reputation of your intended school. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) as well as the American Bar Association (ABA) have approved certain programs and they monitor the caliber of those programs. In fact, some law firms will only hire paralegals who have been certified in an ABA or NALA-approved course.
Paralegal certificate program length can vary quite a bit. Some certificates may include a degree program of two to four years, while others may be completed within a few months. Many community colleges offer paralegal programs as part of an Associate’s degree. Four-year college graduates can earn an additional certificate in paralegal studies. There are a few schools that offer a Bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. One or two even offer a Master’s program. Some employers provide on-the-job training, hiring college graduates without legal experience, or promoting legal secretaries with a great deal of experience, but it often means starting at a lower salary and can mean a longer road to certification.
There is great variety in the caliber of paralegal training programs, with the higher quality programs usually including extras like job placement services. These programs are excellent for anyone looking for a career change. Many programs are available online or can be completed by attending evening courses. Quite a few paralegal training programs provide internship opportunities as well. These give students practical work experience which is an asset when one is seeking a job after graduation.
Here are the most common paralegal certifications:
- The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) has established standards for the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation which requires various combinations of education and experience to be eligible to take a 2-day examination. The exam is given three times each year at several regional testing centers. Subject areas covered include Ethics, Human Relations, Legal Research, Communications, and Legal Terminology.
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation. To acquire this certification, eligible candidates – paralegals with a bachelor’s degree and at least 2 years of experience – take the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE). The exam has two tiers. Tier I covers general legal topics and ethics. Tier II covers specialty topics.
- The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) designation, Paralegals seeking this certification must have a minimum of five years paralegal experience, and they must meet certain educational criteria. Certification is renewed every two years and requires the completion of 18 hours of continuing education.
- The National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS) offers the Professional Paralegal (PP) designation to qualified candidates who pass the exam. Recertification requires 75 hours of continuing education.
The NALA also offers an advanced paralegal certification for those who want to specialize in other areas of the law. This is a curriculum-based program offered on the Internet. The NALS offers the PLS – an advanced certification.
Paralegals who have a paralegal certification make very good salaries. Starting out, the higher your education, the more money you are likely to be offered. A paralegal with no degree or certification, but with several years of experience, as opposed to a new, certified paralegal with an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, will probably earn similar salaries. Those with certifications will invariably start at a much higher salary and have more opportunities for advancement as well.