Understanding Professional Paralegal Certification

In paralegal circles, the terms certificate and certification are frequently used. Although these two terms may sound alike and are often thought to be interchangeable, they actually mean two very different things. Here’s how to make sense of the confusion surrounding these two terms and what each one means to a paralegal’s career:

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Paralegal Certification vs. Paralegal Certificate: What’s the Difference?

Within the paralegal profession, certificate refers to an educational program, while certification refers to a professional designation that can be obtained through a vetting process that involves sitting for an exam:

Academic Certificates in Paralegal Studies – Academic certificates are designed either as entry-level paralegal programs for individuals with a high school diploma or as post-associate or post-baccalaureate programs for career changers or for practicing paralegals looking to specialize in a specific area of law.

These educational programs may range anywhere from 9 to 18 months in length and may feature a generalized course of paralegal studies or a course of study in a specific area of law. Further, any number of institutions may offer paralegal certificate programs, including junior/community colleges, business schools, proprietary institutions, and four-year colleges and universities.

It is commonplace for institutions to offer paralegal certificate programs in online, part-time, or accelerated formats that accommodate the schedules of working professionals.

The American Bar Association (ABA) approves paralegal certificate programs, as well as other educational pathways, including associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees in paralegal studies. Although schools have the option to seek ABA approval on a purely voluntary basis, many choose to pursue this nationally recognized stamp of approval as a way to demonstrate to would-be students and other stakeholders that the organization offers a quality education. Many employers look for graduates who have earned a degree or certificate through an ABA-approved school.

Professional Paralegal Certification – The paralegal profession remains unregulated, as no state or national requirements exist for entry or advancement into the practice. Because of a lack of standards, many paralegals turn to voluntary professional certification to set themselves apart from other professionals in their field. Likewise, many employers seek paralegals that hold national certification.

Paralegal certification is achieved through a national certifying organization, such as:

National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA):

  • CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential (CRP)
    • Candidates must take and pass the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE)
  • PACE Registered Paralegal credential (RP)
    • Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE)

National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA):

  • Certified Paralegal (CP) credential
    • Candidates must take and pass the Certified Paralegal/Certified Legal Assistant (CP/CLA) exam
  • Advanced Paralegal (AP) credential

NALS – The Association for Legal Professionals:

  • Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
    • Candidates must take and pass the Professional Paralegal (PP) exam

American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI):

  • American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential

Note: Several states have also developed state-specific competency examinations through cooperative efforts with state bar associations and/or paralegal associations. Among these states are Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.

Eligibility Requirements to Sit for Professional Paralegal Certification Exams

Professional certification indicates that the certifying organization has formally recognized the paralegal professional as having met certain established requirements. This may include meeting specific educational requirements, possessing prior experience in the paralegal profession, and/or passing an examination.

Currently, professional certification in the paralegal profession remains voluntary, meaning that paralegals may practice with or without a professional designation.

Because of the wide breadth of paralegal educational programs in the U.S., most certifying organizations qualify candidates that have met any number of educational and experience requirements.

For example, candidates may qualify to sit for NFPA’s CORE Competency Exam, designed for entry-level/early-career paralegals, by possessing at least one of the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree in any subject and a paralegal certificate
  • A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies
  • 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
  • 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

Other qualified candidates include:

  • Active duty, retired, or former military personnel qualified in a military operation specialty as a paralegal and 1 hour of ethics continuing legal education in the previous year
  • Individuals within two months of graduating and are registered to take the exam through a legal studies program that participates in the PCCE Assurance of Learning Program at the partner level

Examination Requirements for Professional Paralegal Certification

Once candidates have met the eligibility requirements set forth by the certifying organization, they must take and pass the appropriate certification examination. Exam contents, requirements, and passing scores vary from one organization to the next.

For example, NALA’s Certified Paralegal examination is organized into five sections that reflect the general knowledge and skills expected of today’s paralegals:

  • Communications
  • Ethics
  • Judgment and Analytical Ability
  • Legal Research
  • Substantive Law (American legal systems, business organizations and contracts, civil litigation)

Note: The American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential does not require candidates to sit for an exam.

Paralegal Certification Renewal Requirements

Paralegals must maintain their professional designation through renewal (usually every 5 years) and by completing a specific number of continuing legal education (CLE) hours during the renewal period.

For example, NALA requires certification holders to complete at least 50 hours of CLE, including at least 5 hours of legal ethics, during each five-year renewal period. Similarly, NALS requires those holding the PP designation to complete at least 75 CLE hours (including at least 50 hours in substantive areas and at least 5 hours in ethics) during each five-year renewal period.

Advanced Certification Options for Paralegals

Paralegals with advanced education and/or experience may showcase their advanced standing in the paralegal profession through one of two advanced certification offerings:

NFPA’s PACE Registered Paralegal (RP) credential – Paralegals achieve the RP credential through NFPA by meeting specific education and experience requirements and taking and passing the PACE exam, which consists of questions related to typical paralegal tasks, such as:

  • Administration of client legal matters
  • Development of client legal matters
  • Factual and legal research
  • Factual and legal writing
  • Office administration

NALA’s Advanced Paralegal (AP) credential – To achieve NALA’s AP credential, paralegals must complete a self-study program through NALA. Paralegals may complete the curriculum-based program, which includes detailed exercises and an assessment in their preferred practice area. NALA currently offers the AP credential in 26 practice areas.