Issue: August, 2006
Author: Debra J. Monke, CLAS
Printable Version (PDF)
Why Paralegal Certification Counts
Designation as a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA), or Certified Paralegal (CP) is more than the pinnacle of professional achievement for individual paralegals. It is also a sound indication of proficiency to the attorneys, firms, and organizations that hire them.
Since the CLA program was launched by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) in 1976, it has become widely recognized as the definitive credential for paralegals. More than 26,000 individuals have participated in the program, and 13,509 paralegals are on the certification rolls today.
How Certification Helps
Voluntary certification programs are an esteemed tradition in most professions, and have been described as the single most important movement in the area of human resources. Usually established and administered by a profession’s association, certification programs help individuals proceed from education and training into the real-world challenges of paralegal work. Certification programs influence career preparation as continuing career development.
These programs affirm the knowledge, skills, and expertise to perform at a high professional level. Paralegal certification also speaks volumes about individual dedication and commitment to stay abreast of developments in the legal field.
Certification programs are valuable to employers at all levels, whether large or small businesses, corporations, or sole proprietorships. Three important ways that certification programs help those who hire paralegals are:
1. Assisting hiring decisions—No interview or single assessment tool can predict performance on the job with complete reliability, but certification is a compelling indication of strong commitment to a chosen career and the ability to meet real-world standards.
2. Verifying educational background and experience—Certification programs provide the professional education and experience documentation that many employers need, but do not have time to check.
3. Helping develop recognition and incentive programs—As models for employee training plans, certification programs build confidence and competence in all employees, and they help employers provide greater service to clients. Certification programs are easily adaptable for employee training and development programs designed by employers.
Certification programs are unique to the professions they serve, and they are different from other qualification programs. They differ from licensing programs, for example, on several important levels. Licensing is the means by which a government permits a person to do something. The purpose of licensing programs is to protect the public from incompetent practice by requiring a valid license to work. This is unrelated to the purposes of certification programs.
Certification programs recognize high standards of knowledge and skills. There are many certification programs in professions that are not licensed, such as the paralegal profession. Other certification programs in occupations that are licensed serve as a valuable and needed way for licensed professionals to distinguish themselves from others.
Professional certification programs are not the same as “Certificates of Completion” which are awarded to graduates of paralegal programs. This is often a point of confusion, and it is important for prospective employers to verify what the “Certified” on a resumé actually means.
Benefits for Paralegals and Firms
Because of the benefits of certification and the opportunities provided for professional development, creating a paralegal certification program was a top priority of NALA when the association was founded in 1975. A program was sought which would help employers identify proficient paralegals, would assist paralegal curricula development, and would provide an ongoing professional development program for paralegals. With the ensuing 30 years of research and development, the CLA/CP program has met and exceeded these goals.
In many markets, CLA/CP certification is crucial to securing a paralegal job and to career advancement. Many law firms require professional staff to have the CLA/CP credential, as do large corporations such as Wal-Mart.
For employers, certification means that the employee’s educational background has been checked and verified—an increasingly important detail—and that standards developed by those in the profession have been met. Certification gives employers more options in developing opportunities for growth. For private law firms, certification allows higher billing rates.
Initial certification may take many years to achieve, and keeping it requires continuing effort. To maintain CLA/CP certification, paralegals must participate in at least 50 hours of approved continuing legal education every five years.
Throughout its 30-year history, the CLA/CP certification program has garnered respect and recognition as a sound process of professional development. For example, the program is approved by the U.S. Department of Defense as a GI benefit so that veterans, or those still in uniform, may have their CLA/CP examination costs reimbursed by the government.
There also is widespread use of the CLA/CP credential by paralegals in law firms and corporations to make clear the expertise of a professional staff. This is allowed by bar associations throughout the nation, provided that the paralegal’s nonlawyer status is clearly indicated—the CLA/CP initials alone are not sufficient.
The CLA/CP certification program may be approached by a number of paths. It is available to graduates of paralegal instruction programs that are ABA approved or comply with ABA guidelines, and to college graduates with bachelor’s degrees plus paralegal training. Working paralegals who have extensive experience may also sit for the examination to become a CLA or CP. The rigorous eight-hour exam, administered over a two-day period, is offered each March, July, and December at testing centers located throughout the United States.
The test includes objective questions and two written essays that are part of the Written Communications and Judgment and Legal Analysis sections. The exam covers the following:
• Legal Research
• Judgment & Legal Analysis
• Substantive Law, consisting of five mini-examinations covering the American Legal System and four of the following areas as elected by examinees:
• Administrative Law
• Business Organizations/Corporations
• Family Law
• Criminal Law and Procedure
• Probate and Estate Planning
• Real Estate
Paralegals with the CLA/CP credential who wish to demonstrate advanced knowledge in particular practice areas, may pursue advanced certification. Since its introduction in 1982, more than 1,100 paralegals have achieved advanced certification by passing a four-hour written examination in such areas as:
• Civil Litigation
• Corporate/Business Law
• Criminal Law & Procedure
• Intellectual Property
• Probate & Estates
• Real Estate
• California Advanced Specialty (advanced certification on a state specific law and procedure in the areas of Civil Litigation, Business Organizations-Business Law, Real Estate, Estates and Trusts, and Family Law).
A restructured Advanced Paralegal Certification (APC) program has been introduced in 2006. The new curriculum-based program is offered exclusively by way of the Internet, enabling paralegals with CLA/CP credentials to achieve advanced certification by demonstrating mastery of the material in online tests. The courses are also excellent for anyone in the legal profession wishing to expand or refresh their knowledge.
There are advantages to this model of certification beyond the convenience of a Web-based program. Paralegals will no longer have to wait several months to seek advanced certification, and the clearly defined subject matter in a curriculum-based program makes better sense to employers.
In the former CLAS program, it was difficult to explain what advanced certification in an area as broad as “civil litigation,” for example, actually meant. When certified paralegals complete the advanced program under the new model, employers will receive a list of specific areas that were mastered, offering a much better understanding of the preparation required and the depth of the material.
This curriculum-based model of advanced certification for paralegals may be new to the legal profession, but it is a well-established approach for certification in many other professions. It lends itself well to the NALA program because those who achieve the Advanced Certified Paralegal designation already have the CLA/CP credential. They have already demonstrated a command of the general knowledge and skills required of all paralegals. The new APC program is a boon to paralegals wanting recognition of their advanced knowledge and experience, and it is advantageous to employers seeking ways to further develop and train employees.
The new program was launched July 15 with curricula in “Contracts Administration/Contracts Management,” “Introduction to Social Security Disability,” “Discovery,” and “Business Organizations.” Courses in “Trial Practice,” “Land Use,” and “Personal Injury” are scheduled before the end of 2006.
Courses for the advanced curricula are written by experts in training and development, and in sequential learning. They are guided by an outline developed by a task force of experienced legal assistants, paralegal educators, attorneys, and paralegal managers. The new programs meet the same high standards of certification and educational programs long sponsored by NALA. They may be relied upon by employers and paralegals alike.
The benefits of voluntary professional certification programs such as the CLA/CP and APC programs extend to the entire legal profession—educators, attorneys, and managers as well as paralegals. These programs encourage paralegals to participate in local study groups, and they promote inclusion of CLA/CP review programs in paralegal school curricula. A number of exam review publications, as well as on-line seminars and workshops, have been developed by NALA that benefit all paralegals.
Through the certification program, paralegals take charge of their professional and career development, and demonstrate a commitment to professional growth that rivals that of any profession. Firms and organizations which employ paralegals with CLA/CP or APC credentials can be confident that their interests are being well served.
Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant
Just as “attorney” and “lawyer” are synonymous, so are the terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal.” Throughout the United States, state Supreme Court rules, statutes, ethical opinions, bar association guidelines and similar documents have definitively established the terms as identical. These same documents recognize the paralegal profession as a bona fide legal occupation and encourage the use of legal assistants in delivering legal services.
There is, however, a preference of terms in various circumstances. Some geographic areas, for example, prefer one term to the other. NALA has responded by securing the certification mark “CP” from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (July 20, 2004), and the venerable CLA Certificate, granted to qualified legal assistants since 1976, has been redesigned to encourage recipients to use either “CLA” or “CP” as their professional credential. Many prefer to use “CLA” because of its long-standing recognition in the legal community, but the term “Certified Paralegal” now may be used as well.
It is easy to determine whether the terms “Certified Paralegal” or “Certified Legal Assistant” represent professional certification by NALA, or are used to indicate graduation from an academic paralegal program. The CLA, CP and ACP credentials are registered certification marks of NALA and should only be used by those authorized by the association.
To determine whether the CLA, CP, or ACP on a résumé is a correct use of the NALA credential, visit the NALA Web site at www.nala.org/cert.htm and click on the search function under “Employers” for immediate confirmation. You may also contact NALA Headquarters at (918) 587-6828, or write:
1516 S. Boston Avenue, Suite 200
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74119
Newly Certified Paralegals Bring Wyoming Total to 130
Wyoming has four newly certified paralegals who have passed the rigorous CLA/CP examination given by NALA. This brings the total of paralegals in the state with the CLA/CP to 130. The newly certified paralegals are Michele R. Bailey, Amy C. Cross, Heather D. Morgan, and Loriana L. Salveson, all of Casper.
Deb Monke is a Certified Legal Assistant Specialist and Intellectual Property Administrator for State Farm Insurance Companies in Bloomington, IL. She has been a member of NALA since 1985 and served in a number of leadership positions before her election as president in July 2004. firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 – Wyoming State Bar