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Are you a certified paralegal or a paralegal with a certificate?

certification or certificate

And what’s the difference, again?

Paralegal certificate: is recognition earned from an approved paralegal studies program

Paralegal certification: when a professional has passed a rigorous legal skills test to become a certified paralegal

Too many paralegals make the mistake of claiming to be certified (having passed a certification test) when instead they have received a paralegal certificate (for successfully completing a course or program). Yet there is an important distinction between the two.

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Earning a paralegal certificate

Here is the definition of a certificate, according to the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) the accepted authority on certification:

In contrast to certification and licensure, an assessment-based certificate program is an educational or training program that is used to teach learning objectives and assess whether those objectives were achieved by the student.”  [The assessment may be made via an exam as part of the course but does not signify certification.]

A certification program is designed to test the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform a particular job, and, upon successfully passing a certification exam, to represent a declaration of a particular individual’s professional competence.

Most paralegal certificate programs are post-baccalaureate programs, intended for students who already have a bachelor’s degree, or at the minimum, an associate’s degree. Some paralegal certificate programs do not require a prior degree and can be completed immediately after high school.

Read what the California legislature’s Business and Professional Code has to say.

Should I become a certified paralegal?

While earning a paralegal certificate is no small accomplishment, it should not be confused with certification, which involves taking a thorough examination that demonstrates a paralegal’s skills, knowledge, and experience.

Paralegal certification requires taking a qualification exam through a state agency or paralegal association, as well as meeting the required educational guidelines.

One of the two primary nationwide paralegal associations, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), requires that paralegals who wish to gain the designation of Certified Paralegal or Certified Legal Assistant must:

  • Be a graduate of an approved paralegal program.
  • Take the Certified Paralegal examination.
  • Earn a qualifying score on the examination.

NALA also offers an Advanced Paralegal Certification for Certified Paralegals who want to earn a further designation that signifies specialized knowledge in a particular subject area, including depositions, trust and estate litigation, contracts, trial practice, commercial leases, family law, discovery, eDiscovery, and criminal litigation.

Although most states do not require paralegal certification, it is often highly recommended because of the potential to earn a higher income and the fact that it tells potential employers that you are serious about your paralegal career.

Paralegals who are certified are required to maintain their credential by taking continuing legal education (CLE) courses. This enables them to stay up to date on the latest legal knowledge and ethical obligations, increasing their valuable to their employers.

Why does all this matter?

Paralegals who confuse earning a certificate with becoming certified are doing more than making an embarrassing mistake. They run the risk of misrepresenting themselves within the legal industry. After all, would an attorney who has not passed the Bar exam call himself a lawyer?

Misrepresenting yourself to your employer by claiming expertise that you do not have could be considered a cause for termination. And to make things even more complicated, if your supervising attorney tells clients that you are certified when in fact you are not, he may also be guilty of misrepresentation, putting you in a very unenviable position.

While the paralegal profession is largely unregulated with few state licensing or registration requirements, certification has become the standard of excellence that more and more employers are prioritizing when hiring.

In fact, a 2017 Robert Half Legal survey of 200 of the largest law firms and corporate employers in the U.S. found that:

  • Nearly seven in 10 attorneys said it is somewhat or very challenging to find skilled legal professionals.
  • 46 percent of the law firms surveyed require a post-associate certificate from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved program, 42 percent require a bachelor’s degree, and 28 percent will accept an associate’s degree.
  • Among corporate employers, a bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for paralegals, and 40 percent require a post-degree certificate through an ABA-approved program.

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What made you decide to pursue a paralegal certificate or a certification? Tell us about it in the comments.

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