National certification exams are offered by three national paralegal professional organizations: the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and NALS…the association for legal professionals (formerly the National Association of Legal Secretaries). These exams offer a standardized assessment of paralegals’ skills and knowledge base, which can be a useful method of evaluating paralegals’ competence since state educational requirements and educational programs can vary tremendously. Paralegals that pass a national certification exam demonstrate their excellence in their field and their commitment to the profession.
Washington University School of Law’s online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) one year degree program is designed for professionals who are interested in exploring U.S. law as it relates to a wide array of disciplines, but don’t require a three-year juris doctor degree to practice as an attorney. Delivered completely online, this top-tier program features the same rigorous curriculum and is taught by the same faculty as the on-campus program at Washington University School of Law.
Once earned, national certification must be kept current. Each administering organization has slightly different requirements for renewing certification. However, they all require that paralegals complete continuing legal education (CLE). Evidence of CLE completion must be submitted to the professional organization within a specified time frame. Current membership in the professional organization also must be maintained.
A comparison of exam requirements and recertification procedures can be found here.
National certification requires thorough preparation. Paralegals often form study groups or take courses designed to help them pass the exams. However, the benefits of being nationally certified can outweigh the demands of preparing for the exam. National certification can lead to promotions, increased salaries, job opportunities, teaching and mentoring opportunities and peer recognition, in addition to the personal satisfaction gained by completing the certification process.
National certification is voluntary. However, in some states bar associations and law makers strongly prefer that paralegals become nationally certified. National certification itself may be acceptable within a state, or it may be a prerequisite for state-specific certification. States that strongly encourage paralegals to become nationally certified include: Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Levels of National Certification
Paralegal Certification: Core Competencies
Most paralegals who choose to earn their national certification begin by taking one of the national certification exams that cover a range of legal topics. Thus, they are able to demonstrate their proficiency in a wide scope of legal matters. These general tests, often targeted at entry-level paralegals or those still early in their careers, cover paralegal core competencies such as procedural law, substantive law, written communication, verbal communication, ethics, preparation of legal documents and law office technology. There are three entry-level or early-career examinations available to paralegals:
- The PCC offered by the NFPA;
- The CP/CLA offered by NALA; and
- The PP offered by NALS
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers the Paralegal Core Competencies (PCC) exam. Successful candidates become CORE Registered Paralegals (CRPs). Requirements to sit for the PCC exam are:
- A bachelor’s degree in any field plus a certificate in paralegal studies. No work experience or continuing legal education required; or
- A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. No work experience of continuing legal education required; or
- A bachelor’s degree in any field, plus six months of work experience, plus one hour of continuing legal education in ethics taken within the year prior to the examination application date; or
- An associate degree in paralegal studies. No work experience of continuing legal education required; or
- An associate degree in any field plus a certificate in paralegal studies. No work experience or continuing legal education required; or
- An associate degree in any field plus one year work experience plus six hours of continuing legal education, including one hour of ethics taken in the year prior the examination application date; or
- A paralegal certificate awarded by a program that meets or exceeds the NFPA’s paralegal program requirements plus one year of work experience plus six hours of continuing legal education, including 1 hour of ethics taken in the year prior to the examination application date; or
- A high school diploma or GED plus five years of work experience plus twelve hours of continuing legal education, including one hour of ethics taken in the two years prior to the examination application date.
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the Certified Paralegal/Certified Legal Assistant Exam. Those who pass this examination become Certified Paralegals (CPs) or Certified Legal Assistants (CLAs). In order to sit for the CP/CLA exam, paralegals must meet these eligibility requirements:
- A bachelor’s degree program in paralegal/legal assistant studies; or
- A bachelor’s degree in any field plus a post-baccalaureate certificate program in paralegal/legal assistant studies; or
- A bachelor’s degree in any field plus one year’s work experience as a paralegal/legal assistant. Candidate may substitute
fifteen hours of substantive legal courses for one year’s work experience as a paralegal/legal assistant; or
- An associate degree in paralegal studies; or
- Completion of a legal assistant program approved by the American Bar Association or a paralegal/legal assistant program that includes 60 or more semester hours with at least fifteen hours in substantive legal courses; or
- A high school diploma or GED plus seven years of work experience as a lawyer-supervised paralegal/legal assistant plus at least 20 hours of continuing legal education within the two year period prior to sitting for the exam.
NALS…the association for legal professionals offers the Professional Paralegal Examination which offers candidates the opportunity to become certified as Professional Paralegals (PPs). In order to sit for the Professional Paralegal Examination, paralegals must have five years of work experience as paralegals. Two years of work experience may be waived if a candidate has a degree in paralegal studies. A post-secondary degree, successful completion of the Professional Legal Secretary exam or other certification may be substituted for one year of work experience.
Paralegal Generalist – Advanced
Paralegals with a combination education and work experience may choose to take one of the NFPA’s Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) to become Registered Paralegals (RPs). Those eligible to sit for this exam meet the following requirements:
- An associate degree in paralegal studies awarded by an accredited educational institution and/or and American Bar Association approved paralegal studies program plus six years of substantive paralegal work experience; or
- A bachelor’s degree in any field awarded by an accredited educational institution and three years of substantive paralegal work experience; or
- A bachelor’s degree in any field plus graduation from a paralegal program at an accredited educational institution (may be a minor or emphasis in paralegal studies within a bachelor’s degree) and a minimum of two years substantive paralegal work experience.
Paralegal Specialist Certification
If a paralegal finds an area of law that she or he wishes to specialize in, certification is available to demonstrate the depth of the paralegal’s knowledge within that area of specialization. This certification may be available at the state level, as is the case in California and Texas .
Nationally, NALA offers the Advanced Paralegal Certification (APC). While NALA’s specialization coursework is available as continuing education to all interested paralegals, only paralegals who have previously earned Certified Paralegal (CP) certification may become certified as APC specialists. APC specialties include:
- Contracts Management/Contracts Administration
- Social Security Disability
- Trial Practice
- Alternative Dispute Resolution
- Business Organizations: Incorporated Entities
- Personal Injury – Core Course
- Personal Injury – 8 Practice Area Courses
- Land Use
- Criminal Litigation
- Commercial Bankruptcy
Costs of National Certification
The cost to take the national certification exams ranges from $200 to $325, excluding the cost of any study materials or courses that a paralegal might opt to utilize. Some local paralegal professional organizations offer scholarships to help cover these fees. Employers may also incentivize their employees to become certified by paying the associated costs. Be sure to investigate whether one of these options might be available to you.
In addition to the cost of taking the national certification exams, there are associated costs for recertification, such as continuing legal education (CLE) courses and the membership fees of the professional associations. Some employers will pay for these expenses, demonstrating their commitment to hiring and supporting qualified paralegal professionals.
Some states offer their own certification process in order to encourage high standards of professionalism, to help employers identify qualified employees, and to ensure that their state’s paralegals have a solid knowledge base of state-related legal matters. Paralegal certification may be offered by the state bar association, as is the case in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. In other states, such as Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, state certification is offered by the state’s professional paralegal association.
In some states, national certification helps paralegals qualify to become state-certified. Sometimes the two processes are not integrated. In this case, paralegals may decide to become state-certified only, or both state-certified and nationally-certified.
Additionally, both California and Arizona offer the opportunity for paralegals to become legal document preparers. This requires a separate certification and is a separate designation from paralegal/ However many paralegals choose to obtain such certification to increase the skills and professional services that they may offer.
Other Legal Requirements
Other states, such as California. have legal requirements that paralegals have to follow, but not certification. It is advisable to know your own states educational and continuing education requirements and to keep all of your paperwork documenting your education and experience. Please consult your state’s information page for an overview of requirements. Your local professional paralegal association will also be able to offer you assistance in ensuring that you have met your state’s legal requirements for working as a paralegal.