“The biggest misconception is that paralegals are clerical staff. And, although a paralegal may perform clerical duties—and make no mistake, clerical staff are important to a law firm—a paralegal’s function can go far beyond clerical duties.
A properly trained paralegal will have a handle on several substantive areas of the law and can assist in functions such as drafting documents, investigating claims, engaging with clients, preparing witnesses, and planning trial strategy.”
— Keith Shannon, paralegal educator
Paralegals provide support to lawyers by conducting legal research, drafting documents, and organizing files. A paralegal’s area of work (for example, crime or family law) will determine the tasks they’ll perform, which include the following:
- Drafting legal documents and correspondence
- Reviewing and summarizing documents
- Investigating facts and reviewing the case record
- Conducting client interviews and investigations
- Summarizing depositions and testimony
- Locating and interviewing witnesses
- Communicating with clients
If you’re interested in paralegal work, to have the most career success and flexibility, you should obtain a paralegal certificate. This article will help you learn what a paralegal certificate is and how to get one.
What is a Paralegal Certificate?
A paralegal certificate is a document that a person receives when they finish a paralegal education program. The prerequisites for a paralegal certificate program may vary, but students must have at least completed an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in another area of study.
It’s possible to become a paralegal without a certificate, but a paralegal certificate can make you a better candidate, help you earn a higher salary, and advance your career. Many employers will only consider paralegals with certificates when hiring. One state (California) requires certification for paralegals and assistants performing certain functions under its California Business and Professions Code, Sections 6450 through 6456.
To learn more about regulation, visit the National Federation of Paralegal Associations website, which provides a state-by-state table of paralegal regulations, updated every two years.
How Do You Get a Paralegal Certificate?
“A paralegal is not a glorified secretary. You must have a degree or a certificate to be a paralegal; without it, you are just a legal assistant.
Paralegals are highly skilled, trained legal professionals. Formal training for a paralegal is just as important as formal training for a lawyer.”
— Doug Lusk, paralegal educator
You may obtain a paralegal certificate from any institution that offers the academic program. Programs range from six weeks to two years, with longer postdegree programs offering additional practical training. Your choices will be shaped by any education you’ve obtained before starting your paralegal career journey.
Anyone wishing to become a paralegal must earn a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for paralegal training programs. Assuming you have met this requirement, you have three main options for education:
Earn a Paralegal Certificate While Earning a Degree
- Earn an associate degree in paralegal studies (or related discipline) with a certificate in paralegal studies. You may earn the associate degree and the certificate concurrently; it will take about two years to complete.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree with a major or minor in paralegal studies. You may earn the bachelor’s degree and the certificate concurrently; it will take about four years to complete.
Add Paralegal Education to an Existing Degree
- If you already have an associate degree, take a certificate program in paralegal studies. To be competitive with paralegals who have bachelor’s degrees, you will probably want to choose a more in-depth program. Expect to spend a year earning your certificate.
- If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you’re in a great position. You can earn a certificate in paralegal studies in 3 to 12 months.
Enroll in a Proprietary Certificate Program
- You may also earn a paralegal certificate through a school’s proprietary program, which will take 3 to 18 months. Each program will have its own requirements.
ABA-Approved vs. Non-ABA-Approved Programs
Even though several institutions offer paralegal certificate programs, your best bet is to get your paralegal training through an ABA-approved paralegal certificate program.
ABA approval requires that the program has operated for at least two years and has a record of producing employable and successful graduates. Approval standards ensure that students learn from qualified professionals as part of a comprehensive curriculum designed to produce ready-to-work graduates. Attending an approved program can also give aspiring paralegals an edge over other candidates. The ABA maintains a directory of approved paralegal programs.
Can You Take a Non-ABA-Approved Program?
If there’s no ABA-approved school near you, you may obtain paralegal education from a non-ABA-approved institution. Some factors to consider when looking for a well-rounded paralegal program include the following:
- Course descriptions
- Faculty qualifications
- Student services (like career counseling and tutoring)
- School accreditations
- Internship programs
- Employment rates of graduated students
- Membership in professional associations
No matter your education, you’ll stand out if you’re a problem solver and you’re committed to developing your paralegal skills.
Innovative Paralegal Programs
If you’re searching for an innovative and inclusive school that offers paralegal certificate programs, you may consider Midlands Technical College (MTC) in South Carolina. We have collaborated with MTC to help improve legal writing. During our collaboration, hundreds of paralegal students have received WordRake licenses to use in their writing assignments and help with their legal writing training.
Earning a Paralegal Certificate vs. Becoming a Certified Paralegal
Even though the terms are often used interchangeably, completing a certificate program and becoming a certified paralegal are not the same.
Attending a paralegal education program is evidence of education and professional training. When you complete it, you receive a certificate of completion that shows potential employers you are ready to work.
Becoming a Certified Paralegal is an additional professional certification and credential. You are eligible to test (or apply for) this recognition after you have completed paralegal education or training. This credential is usually good for five years and requires continuing education courses.
To compare to a familiar system within the legal profession, all lawyers who graduated from law school receive the juris doctorate degree (J.D.), which shows completion of legal education. But only lawyers who pass a licensing exam recognized by the National Conference of Bar Examiners become licensed (or admitted) to practice law. Each state has its own rules for licensure.
How to Become a Certified Paralegal
Four organizations offer recognized certifications that you can get after you’ve completed your initial paralegal education:
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
The NFPA advocates for common paralegal certification standards in the U.S. It offers the following certification programs:
- Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE): A broad certification for new and advancing professionals with bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies or its equivalent.
- Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE): A high-level certification program for experienced paralegals who want to advance their career.
To maintain valid certification, you must take continuing education courses. For PCCE, you must complete eight hours of approved legal education every two years. PACE requires 12 hours of training.
National Association for Legal Assistants (NALA)
NALA is the primary source for continuing education for paralegals, and runs two voluntary certification programs:
- Certified Paralegal (CP): You can take the CP certification exam if you’ve enrolled or graduated from a paralegal program, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in any field, or worked as a paralegal for at least seven years. CP certifications are valid for five years.
- Advanced Certified Paralegals (ACP): This online certification program teaches students about corporate law, civil law, labor law, and other related areas. Anyone can take the ACP course, but the distinguished ACP Credential is only available to certified paralegals. The ACP course is 20 hours long and is accessible anytime.
National Association for Legal Support Professionals (NALS)
NALS offers the following paralegal certifications for students and professionals:
- Accredited Legal Professional (ALP): For students or entry-level professionals looking to start their career in the legal field.
- Certified Legal Professional (CLP): For individuals with at least three years of legal work experience.
- Professional Paralegal (PP): For those graduating from an ABA-approved legal studies or paralegal studies program, or for those with at least five years of legal assistant experience.
The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI)
Unlike other organizations on our list, the AAPI does not require a certification exam. You can become an American Alliance Certified Paralegal if you have at least five years of legal experience.
Below we’ve listed the educational requirements for individuals who want to get AAPI-certified:
- A bachelor’s degree or higher in any field
- An associate’s degree in paralegal studies
- A paralegal certificate from a program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) or offered by an institutional voting member of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE)
Association of Legal Administrators (ALA)
The ALA offers the Certified Legal Manager (CLM) program, which involves taking a certification exam that tests knowledge in legal management. If you’re taking the CLM exam, you need at least three years of experience as a principal administrator, branch office manager, or exempt-level specialist in HR/financial/facilities/marketing management. You must complete at least 10 hours of qualifying coursework studies within twenty-four months before your date of application.
Is Certification the Same as Specialization?
Certification and specialization are different credentials. Certification addresses broad skills while specialization addresses depth of knowledge in a specific subject area. A paralegal may pursue both certification and specialization. The job market and your career aspirations will determine whether specialization is right for you.
Some subject matter-specific organizations offer certification to all kinds of legal professionals. For example, lawyers and paralegals may pursue acknowledgement of their subject matter expertise from an organization like the Texas Board of Legal Specialization which certifies that a legal professional has “substantial, relevant experience in select areas of law, completed continuing legal education hours in the specialty area, and passed a rigorous exam.” Once a professional passes this exam, they may call themselves Board Certified.
To continue the comparison to a familiar system within the legal profession, all lawyers who have passed a bar exam are licensed to practice. But only lawyers who have subject matter knowledge confirmed by a recognized organization may call themselves experts.
For example, to demonstrate specific subject matter expertise in bankruptcy, a lawyer may pursue recognition from an organization like the American Board of Certification. Legal professionals may also have their expertise recognized by invitation from a specialist organization like the College of Law Practice Management.
Take Your First Step Toward Paralegal Work
“A paralegal can be a great asset. Whether they have duty or not, paralegals have a lot to give. Their contributions should not be underestimated.”
— Ryan Groff, paralegal-turned-lawyer
Paralegals go beyond clerical duties and help lawyers build substantial, convincing cases. With proper training and certification, you can embrace innovation and be an excellent contributor to the legal team.
Looking to hone your legal writing skills? Try WordRake today.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.