As a new paralegal, it is important to understand the difference between becoming a certificated paralegal and receiving a paralegal certification. First and foremost, according to the American Bar Association (ABA), the ABA does not certify Paralegals. Paralegals are not allowed to call themselves "ABA-certified paralegals." The ABA only approves certain educational programs that offer paralegal degrees or certificates. A student who completes an ABA approved education is a certificated paralegal.
After a paralegal has gone thorough an educational program, they may want to add an additional certification after their name. These certifications are offered by agencies that have certain requirements such as education, experience, and testing in order to use their designation. Certification is not mandatory.
New paralegals may question the need for certification due to the fact that it is currently voluntary. Certification, however, remains one of the ways a paralegal can stand out as a true professional in their field as these agencies operate in an unbiased manner and verify the qualifications of the paralegal. These designations may help the paralegal in a highly competitive workplace.
In the last few years, in an effort to keep office expenses down, the legal profession has navigated toward automation as more law offices add computer programs to perform repetitious tasks in the law office. Some of these tasks were typically preformed by paralegals.
While software may take over some responsibilities of the paralegal, there are many functions that require a well-trained human to complete. As such, now more than ever, new paralegals entering the workforce may fare better with a certification added to their name.
These certifications will set the paralegal apart from the competition by demonstrating that they have mastered their profession. The paralegal certification establishes that they are able provide excellent professional office and legal assistance to law firms rather than simply performing rote tasks that may be replaced by technology.
While a paralegal may be certificated after completing a program from their educational institute, these differ from the certifications received after the fact. Certain State Bars such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas do offer a certification to paralegals. In each of these states, the Bar has recognized the need to distinguish those paralegals that have exceeded the skills and experience to act as highly trained professionals. Each of these states offers their own voluntary certification designation that a qualified paralegal may use after their name once they meet the state's requirements.
There are also nationally recognized associations such as the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI), The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALS), and the National Federation of Paralegals (NFPA) that offer similar certifications to the above State Bar certifications.
Accredited Legal Professional (ALP)
To qualify for the ALP designation a paralegal must meet certain criteria that include passing an exam. There are three possible paths to take for the ALP exam. The first requires completion of specific business or legal courses determined by the NALS. The next is proof of twelve months of previous office work. Or if the student prefers, they may take the NALS legal coursework program. Choosing one of these three avenues prepares a candidate for the ALP exam. The ALP shows the student's aptitude in office policy, communication skills, ethics, technology, and legal terminology and documents.
Once a student has completed their training, they are allowed to take the ALP test. This paralegal exam consists of three parts that must be taken at the same time. Not passing any part requires a retake of the parts a student fails. The fee is the same on each attempt.
The ALP certification will remain in force for five years. Once the initial five-year period is up, recertification is awarded once the paralegal demonstrates fifty hours of continued education as well as payment of the recertification fee.
Professional Legal Secretary (PLS)
The PLS is more stringent in its requirements. The paralegal with a PLS certification has demonstrated mastery in all office procedures, legal terminology, working with legal documents and research, and other similar skills. In order to acquire the certification, the paralegal must prove at least three years of working in a law office. Up to one year of this requirement may be waived if the student has an undergraduate degree or other paralegal certifications.
The exam is a four-part test that requires all parts taken in one sitting. Any failed parts may be taken again along with paying the exam fee. Recertification is required every five years. In order to obtain recertification, the paralegal must show proof of continued education credits.
Professional Paralegal (PP)
The PP certification has the greatest amount of prerequisites. As a certified Professional Paralegal, a student must have at least five years of paralegal experience. They are also required to have an undergraduate degree in paralegal studies and complete a paralegal program from an accredited school.
This certification demonstrates the exceptional knowledge a paralegal has in the legal field as well as all of the standard office requirements of the ALP. The test consists of four parts. As with the other two designations, any parts failed may be taken again.
This is an add-on certification for a currently designated PP or PLS. The NALS offers training in three specialty areas of law: Litigation and Civil Law, Corporate Law, and Estate and Family Law. Each of these broad areas is broken down into subcategories by the NALS with specific training in each subcategory. The paralegal wishing to add a specialty certificate may do so in their first five years of certification. They must have fifty hours of practice, participation, and/or continued educational courses and seminars in the subspecialty field. The paralegal Specialty Certificate is renewable every five years.
American Alliance of Paralegals (AAP)
The AAP offers one certification with the designation, American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP). Their certification program is only available to applicants that have worked as a paralegal and have completed a degree or paralegal certificated program. Anyone not already designated as a certificated paralegal may not earn the AAP.
To qualify for the AAP requires a combination of education and experience. The higher the education, the fewer years needed to actually work as a paralegal. A paralegal passing an educational certificated program must have at least six years working in the field, whereas, a student with a bachelor's degree only needs two. Unlike other certifications, the AAP does not have an exam. They require experience, education, ethical standards, and a yearly membership fee.
The benefits of the AAP are similar to other certifications. The main benefit is the advantage it affords in the workplace. Employers looking to hire will usually choose highly qualified candidates. The certification process attests to an applicant's qualification both in experience and education. Some consider the AAP to be one of the best certification programs due to their strict qualifications.
National Federation of Paralegals (NFPA)
The NFPA has two credentialing exams that allow the paralegal to have additional certification designations after their name: CRP and RP.
The Paralegal Core Competency Exam (CRP)
This exam is designed as a first-step for anyone wishing to practice as a paralegal. It was created so that employers would know that the paralegal is proficient in the core competencies of the profession. Eligibility to sit for the exam starts at the high school level.
An applicant who has a GED or high school diploma, as well as five years of work experience in a qualified legal setting, plus twelve hours of continuing education may sit for the exam. At the other end of the spectrum, the candidate that has a bachelor's degree and has been certificated as a paralegal through an educational program also qualifies. There are other opportunities for those with Associate degrees and work experience as well.
In order to recertify, the paralegal must seek continuing legal education credits. These credits may come in many different forms from approved coursework to volunteer work. The list of allowed CLE hours is available from the National Federation of Paralegals.
The Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (RP)
The RP designation is awarded to those who pass the PACE exam, have not committed a felony, and those who qualify both in experience and education. Those with a bachelor's degree must have two years of paralegal experience. For those with an associate's degree in paralegal studies they must have six years of paralegal work experience.
The RP is renewable every five years upon completion of twelve units of continuing legal education, submission of an affidavit, and paying the renewal fee. As with the CRP, CLE units may be acquired from various approved sources as listed by the National Federation of Paralegals.
Legal Document Assistants Certification (LDA)
A legal document assistant and a paralegal have similar education and training. Currently there are two states with this certification. An LDA certification in California is allowed by law to prepare and file legal documents. They can't offer legal advice or act on a client's behalf in a court case. In California they must be bonded and register with the county they work in.
LDAs may not refer to themselves as paralegals. One of the primary distinctions is the paralegal works for the attorney. An LDA may work directly with consumers and are not under the supervision of an attorney. Unlike an LDA, a paralegal does not have to be registered or bonded.
Similar to California, Arizona also has a Legal Document Assistant certification. The AZCLDP certification requires certain educational standards to be met. Unlike California, Arizona certification allows for the AZCLDP to work under a licensed attorney if they don't meet certain educational requirements. They may also provide general legal information (not advice). Certification is good for two years at which time the AZCLDP must complete ten hours of continuing education in order to renew their certification.
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