Paralegal Certificate, Certification and Certified: What’s the difference?

Paralegal Certificate, Certification and Certified: What’s the difference?

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This blog is going to cover paralegal certificates, but first I want to make sure that you understand the distinction between a certificate and being certified or having certification. The easy way to remember it is that schools do not offer certification – they offer certificates; having a certificate or degree can lead to being certified or attaining certification. In other words, the certificate or degree comes first. Certification requires taking qualification exams through state agencies or paralegal associations, along with meeting any other educational or professional guidelines mandated by the certificate-granting association, state or agency. For example, two national professional associations that offer a paralegal (or legal assistant) certification credential are the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).

*Whether you’re looking to earn an undergraduate degree in preparation for the Certified Paralegal Exam, or ready to advance your career with a master's degree in legal studies, accredited online programs make it easier than ever to get the education you need:

Washington University School of Law offers an online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) program. This 12-month master's degree allows paralegals to gain in-depth knowledge of US Law. The program can be completed without relocating or leaving your job. No GRE or LSAT scores required.

What is a paralegal certificate and how does it compare with a degree?

Types of Paralegal Certificate Programs

Most paralegal certificates are post-baccalaureate programs. In other words, they’re for students who already have a bachelor’s degree or, at the very least, an associate degree. This degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in paralegal studies: you can have a bachelor’s degree in business, fine arts, political science or pretty much anything. The main thing is that you have a higher education foundation that includes humanities, math, English and social sciences, and have developed reading, writing and communication skills that you can draw upon in your professional life. A post-baccalaureate certificate program can help you reach the next level of professionalism as it often lends itself to specialization in a specific area–in this case paralegal studies.

A few paralegal certificate programs can be completed right after high school. It is very important to distinguish between the two types of programs: post-baccalaureate programs are more like graduate programs, whereas programs that can be completed right after high school provide more of a technical continuing education with little or no general education to round out the course of study.

There is a definite advantage to entering the workplace with a general education under your belt in addition to legal classes, and many employers specifically require an associate or bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite for employment. However, if you need to enter the workforce right away, are already working straight out of high school and want to add paralegal skills to your resume for potential advancement or simply do not have the funds for a degree, then a certificate program that does not require a bachelor’s or associate degree as a prerequisite may be for you.

What’s Required

Certificate programs generally require anywhere from 18 to 45 credit hours. Since many, or even most students are already working, these programs are frequently set up so that they can be completed through night or weekend classes and/or on a part-time basis. Many certificate program can be completed within a year, even on a part-time basis, although most schools accommodate students by allowing them to take longer to complete a program.

Post-baccalaureate programs vary in what areas of the law they cover, but most include legal research, legal writing, an introductory course in paralegalism, substantive law and a choice of courses in specialty areas of the law. Some schools offer multiple paralegal certificate options. For instance, some post-baccalaureate certificate programs offer emphases in areas like nursing paralegal, criminal law paralegal, business paralegal or educational paralegal. Within each of these programs are a few courses that focus on the law as it applies to that specialty.

One great thing about these post-baccalaureate programs is that the students who apply to and complete these programs are generally older, more mature, have some work experience and are extremely motivated to excel in their chosen profession. These programs are definitely on a higher rung on the educational ladder than technical certificate programs, and as such are seen by potential employers as recognizable and valued achievements.

The Role of a Certificate in Certification

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), one of the two main nationwide paralegal associations, requires that those who take the Certified Paralegal examination to become a Certified Paralegal have a paralegal education. Specifically, they require:

  • Graduation from a paralegal program that is:
  • (a) Approved by the American Bar Association; or
  • (b) An associate degree program; or
  • (c) A post-baccalaureate certificate program in paralegal studies;
  • (d) A bachelor’s degree program in paralegal studies; or
  • (e) A paralegal program which consists of a minimum of 60 semester hours (900 clock hours or 90 quarter hours) of which at least 15 semester hours (225 hours or 22.5 quarter hours) are substantive legal courses
  • Alternative qualifications call for a bachelor’s degree in any field, plus a year of paralegal working experience or seven years of working experience as a paralegal.

Thus, if you already have an associate or bachelor’s degree and complete a post-baccalaureate certificate program you meet the educational requirements for taking the Certified Paralegal examination, and with a qualified score on that exam you gain the designation of Certified Paralegal or Certified Legal Assistant. Law Offices, corporations and other employers recognize this as a milestone of professional excellence and certification is frequently a preferred prerequisite for many paralegal positions. (NALA also offers an Advanced Paralegal Certification for those who already Certified Paralegals.)

Choosing a Paralegal Certificate Program

Certificate programs that offer specialized tracks can be excellent options for those who are seeking job fulfillment through specific areas of the law. For example, you may wish to become involved in ecology, and with a certificate track in environmental paralegal studies you will most likely find that the doors of NGOs with environmental missions will open wider for you. And, because the law impacts insurance, medical facilities and other areas of medicine, including drug companies, individuals who already have nursing degrees can graduate from nursing paralegal certificate programs and find paralegal positions in those fields because of their specialized knowledge.

A certificate program is an excellent choice for working individuals who are looking to make a career change, whether within their field or in uncharted territory. It can also serve as an good opportunity for those considering law school as it enables students to get their feet wet in the legal field.

Paralegal certificate programs can even benefit those who don’t aspire to be working paralegals. Because the law impacts every aspect of our society, anyone who adds legal knowledge to their portfolio is also creating potential for advancement in their current job.

Things to consider when looking for a certification program that fits your needs and goals include:

  • Are you looking for a simple technical certificate or a post-baccalaureate program?
  • Are you looking for a program with specialized tracks?
  • Is your undergraduate degree already in legal or paralegal studies? If so, does the certificate program cover new ground that will allow you to expand you knowledge or will it simply rehash what you have already learned?
  • If you didn’t cover legal studies in your undergraduate degree, does the certificate program offer the basics of legal research, analysis, writing, substantive law, technology and management?
  • What other obligations do you have, whether work or family, that will affect the demands on your life and what accommodations does the school have that will fit with your schedule? How long do you want to take to earn your certificate?
  • What are the professional credentials and experience of the faculty?
  • What resources does the school have in terms of research tools, classrooms, online accessibility and job placement programs?
  • How much do you want to spend?

With answers to these basic questions you are sure to find a school that can provide you with a quality education that meets your needs and helps you achieve your specific career goals.

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