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Benefits of Paralegal Certification: Types & Options

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Employability, as defined by the late Professor Sumantra Ghoshal, is "doing value creating work, getting paid for it – and learning at the same time, enhancing the ability to get work in the future." [1]

Each semester, when I look into the eyes of eager paralegal students ready to begin their new professional journey, I ask them a series of simple, yet daunting, questions:

  • What will you do to set yourself apart from the person sitting to your left or your right that will be competing for the same jobs?
  • What do you intend on doing to set yourself apart from the hundreds, if not thousands, of paralegal students currently in other programs that will be competing for the same jobs as you?
  • Regardless of legal experience some 2, 4, or 10 years from now, what do you intend on doing in order demonstrate a forward career trajectory to your then current or prospective employers?

The bottom line is that in order to secure an entry level legal career opportunity, maintain your "dream job" (if you're lucky enough to find it), or make a lateral move successfully, it's absolutely critical to understand that it boils down to much more then grades, writing samples, and references. Indeed, those things are no doubt important, but only part of the overall equation. Keep in mind the vast majority of your competition, other paralegals, all strive to achieve the same high marks, high quality writing samples, and solid professional references that you have. You need to dazzle. Your goal must be to "jump off the page."

Enter the paralegal certification process.

Certification requires a great deal of preparation and commitment, but the benefits of achieving certification status as a paralegal can be massive for both the individual as well as the employing law firm making it the perfect "win-win" formula.

The well-recognized national paralegal associations offering certification options are:

(1) The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA®)

(2) The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)

(3) The National Association of Legal Professionals (NALS)



NFPA Certification:

The two examinations offered by NFPA® are the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE®) and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE™). Paralegals who pass the PCCE® will received a certificate from NFPA® authorizing the use of the credential "CORE Registered Paralegal" and the initials "CRP" after their name. Paralegals who successfully pass the PACE™ exam will receive a certificate authorizing the use of the credential "PACE Registered Paralegal" and the initials "RP" after their name. [2]

Once certified as a CRP or RP, NFPA requires registrants to meet continuing legal education obligations. Specifically, CRP's must complete eight credits of CLE every two years while RP's must complete twelve. Each must complete at least one credit in the area of ethics.



NALA Certification:

The certification examination offered by NALA is the Certified Legal Assistant/Certified Paralegal Exam. Candidates who pass the NALA examination receive a certificate authorizing their use of the Certified Paralegal credential (CP). Once a paralegal is designated a CP, they may then elect to participate in a number of advanced certified paralegal courses, and subsequently advertise themselves as an Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP). [3]

To maintain certification, CPs must complete at least fifty hours of CLE every five years of which five hours must be in the area of ethics.

 



NALS Certification:

Finally, NALS offers three certification options: The Accredited Legal Professional (ALP), Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and Certified Professional Paralegal (PP). [4] In order to maintain the PP credential the individual must complete at least seventy-five hours of CLE every five years of which five hours must be in the area of ethics. Like the NALA credential, there are now several "Specialty Certificates" available in specialized areas of law. Any certified Professional Paralegal (PP) or Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) may earn a Specialty Certificate after obtaining 50 CLE credit hours in one of the specialty tracks designated by NALS within a five-year validity period. Specialty Certificates will be valid for 5 years, after which time, a new application must be submitted in order to maintain a valid Specialty Certificate.


 

Students and paralegals will often ask me, "What will certification get me?" Becoming certified is one of the most effective ways for an individual to address the key employability questions presented above. The credential will set you apart and demonstrate you possess many of the key skills legal employers seek such as professionalism, competence, strong initiative/motivation, ethical decision making, and a desire to advance to name a few. Once certified, you become part of a select few of elite rather than one of a very large many.

Here's more. Over the last decade, I have presented a hypothetical to thousands of attorneys:

If you are hiring and have two candidates for a position with your firm with equal educational backgrounds, experience, and personality traits but one is certified and one is not, which one would you hire?

The answer has always been the same...the certified paralegal. This is so even if the attorney sometimes confides in me that they have no idea what paralegal certification means or that it even existed. Why, then does paralegal certification, which many attorneys continue to flat out misunderstand, have an impact on their employment decisions? The answer is rather simple. It boils down to law firm marketability, profitability, and client satisfaction. Knowledge or understanding of the certification process aside (which hopefully will continue to improve as the paralegal profession continues to advance), law firm partners and/or managers know these three key success concepts inside and out. It is the focus of their attention more then you could possibly imagine.

Here are just a few specifics on how your certification status might be of high interest to your prospective employer or supervisor.

Marketability - A law firm employing certified paralegals can market and advertise that their firm staff, both attorney and paralegal, possess the specialization and experience needed to handle even the most complex legal issues and cases. Take here in New Jersey as an example. There are less than 200 CP's yet close to 90,000 attorneys. The licensed attorney, facing ruthless competition, is trying desperately to distinguish their practices from the thousands of others out there and employing certified staff is a huge building block in that department.

Profitability - Billable hours are the life line of every law firm. Ethics rules no doubt permit a certified paralegal to be billed out at a higher hourly rate due to their unique experience and qualifications thereby resulting in the potential for increased law firm profitability. Get a lawyer thinking about dollars and cents and you will indeed begin to dazzle and "jump off the page!"

Client Satisfaction - To succeed on the certification exams and maintain the hard earned credential, paralegals must possess a very high level of competence and administrative abilities. Simply put, this will trickle down to increased efficiency and quality of work. Clients want their matters handled with the utmost care and quality while at the same time demanding not one minute of excess time. Attorneys never forget that keeping the client happy and meeting their expectations as efficiently as possible is the number one priority of a successful law practice. Happy clients equate to returning clients as well as client referrals!

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[1] Ghoshal, Sumantra (1997). "The Individualized Corporation: An Interview with Sumantra Ghoshal". European Management Journal 15 (6): 625–632.

[2] Eligibility requirements and the necessary continuing legal education that must be completed yearly in order to maintain NFPA certification can be found at: www.paralegals.org

[3] Eligibility requirements and the necessary continuing legal education that must be completed yearly in order to maintain NALA certification can be found at: www.nala.org

[4] Eligibility requirements and the necessary continuing legal education that must be completed yearly in order to maintain NALS certifications can be found at: www.nals.org


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