Paralegals and Legal Assistants
Paralegals, often called legal assistants, help lawyers prepare for trials and other important meetings by investigating the facts of cases and conducting research into relevant laws, court decisions, and legal articles that could help with a particular case. They also draft important documents, such as court filings, contracts, and separation agreements, among other tasks. Most paralegals have either an associate degree, bachelor's degree, or certificate in paralegal studies, but a few are trained on the job. At present, state licensure is not required to be a paralegal, but a few states do require paralegals to complete a certain amount of credit hours or a program approved by the American Bar Association. To distinguish themselves in their profession, many paralegals obtain voluntary certification to show they are knowledgeable and experienced in paralegal work.
Certification is a personal choice, although in some markets it does set one apart, showing a dedication to your career and that you consider being a paralegal a career/profession, versus a job.
Theresa PraterVice President and Director of Professional Development for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations
Getting Paralegal and Legal Assistant Certification
Paralegal certification is a strong indication that paralegals have the education and work experience necessary to perform their jobs effectively. For this reason, certification is often preferred and even required by some employers. A few organizations offer certification for paralegals, including the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA). Regular and advanced certification is available through both organizations. "Certification is a personal choice, although in some markets it does set one apart, showing a dedication to your career and that you consider being a paralegal a career/profession, versus a job," said Theresa Prater, NFPA vice president and director of professional development.
NALA requires you to pass an exam to earn the Certified Paralegal (CP) credential. The exam has five parts, testing a paralegal's knowledge of communications, ethics, legal research, judgment and analytical ability, and substantive law. You are eligible to take the CP exam only if you graduate from an approved paralegal program, have a bachelor's degree plus one year of experience as a paralegal, or a high school diploma plus seven years of experience as a paralegal (see full eligibility requirements here). NALA Executive Director Marge Dover said that certification is not only important for keeping current in the frequently-changing legal field, but that the attorneys who oversee the work of paralegals are responsible for keeping them sharp. "The burden is on attorneys to make sure that their support staff are competent," Dover said.
NFPA requires you to pass a qualifying exam to become certified as a Registered Paralegal (RP), but this has more stringent eligibility requirements. To be eligible, those with associate degrees must also have six years of substantive paralegal experience, and those with bachelor's degrees must have three years substantive paralegal experience, unless they've also completed a paralegal program, in which case they would need only two years of experience (see full eligibility requirements here). NFPA's exam covers administration and development of client legal matters, factual and legal research and writing, and office administration.
Maintaining Paralegal and Legal Assistant Licensure and Certification
The field of law is constantly in flux. Paralegals must stay on top of these changes in order to continually improve their work and provide value to their law firm. For this reason, merely meeting the educational and experience requirements of associations like NALA and NFPA and passing their exams is not enough to remain certified. Paralegals must routinely maintain their certification through continuing legal education (CLE) according to each association's requirements.
Learning does not end when you meet your degree requirements. It’s just the beginning.
Marge DoverExecutive Director of the National Association of Legal Assistants
Dover said the value of continuing education goes beyond the obvious benefit of a paralegal staying current in their field. "Learning does not end when you meet your degree requirements. It's just the beginning," Dover said. "It helps in the demonstration of your professional attitude in your field and is required for maintaining certification. Also, a paralegal's time is billed in the same manner as attorneys. They're billed on an hourly basis for substantive legal work. To keep the billing rates competitive and to defend their billing rates, paralegals need to be able to demonstrate to a court that they are competent."
Certification renewal requirements are different for each association. For the NFPA, the voluntary renewal is done every two years, and you must accumulate 12 hours of CLE credits, including one hour of ethics, in order to renew, Prater said. NALA, an advocate of continuing education for all paralegals, offers continuing education programs through publications, live seminars, and online programs. For NALA, you must renew your Certified Paralegal credential every five years and submit proof that you have completed 50 hours of CLE, including five hours pertaining to ethics, in order to voluntarily renew, according to the NALA website. Specific information pertaining to certification renewal and CLE requirements can be obtained through the association's website.
The topic of CLE depends on the paralegal's area of practice. "Paralegals take CLE in all areas of the law, depending on their practice area," Prater said. "As had been the case for several years, litigation paralegals seem to be taking courses on e-discovery and rule updates; Social Security and disability paralegals and admitted practitioners take seminars on changes in those statutes. Ethics is always a key topic and most anything to do with use of programs such as Adobe, Lexis, and Westlaw always draw attendees."
Paralegals have demanding jobs which keep them busy, making continuing legal education difficult at times to work into their schedules. We suggest completing your course work at a time of day that works best for you by taking your classes online, to the extent this is permitted. "Online is exploding because it's so convenient," said Dover, pointing out that NALA offers live webinars and self-study programs. "[Students] can work on it at their own pace if it's asynchronous." Prater pointed out that the amount of online study allowed by NFPA for CLE credit is limited, with the exception of inter-active webinars, which is seen as the same as attending a live seminar. On-demand seminars are considered self-study, and RPs are limited in the amount of self-study hours that can be applied to their required CLE, Prater noted.
The classes you take will depend on your association's requirements, so we recommend consulting with your credentialing organization prior to signing up for online CLE courses to verify that any credits earned online are approved for your CLE requirement.
RP, PACE Registered Paralegal, PACE, CORE, CRP and NFPA are registered trademarks and/or service marks of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc.