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Everything you need to know about paralegal certification

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Which certification program is best for you?

Paralegal programs grant certificates or diplomas to graduates who have successfully completed the necessary paralegal training. However, this is not the same as paralegal certification, which is granted by three different professional agencies, and usually awarded after a paralegal completes their initial education and either earns a degree or certificate.

At present, there are no nationwide mandatory requirements for paralegal professional certification or licensing. In fact, California is the only state in which paralegals are required to meet specific educational standards.

Nonetheless, certification is recommended and may even be beneficial for students pursuing a paralegal career. In some markets employers may prefer or even require their paralegals to earn certification. Some experienced paralegals may even seek out certification in order to increase their skills and advance their knowledge of the profession and ultimately increase pay and employability.

Paralegal certificate courses

Not to be confused with certification, certificate courses are education programs designed for faster completion, and are useful for earning certifications that have a bachelor degree or education requirement. Career-changers who already have an associate or bachelor’s in another area, can earn a certificate or diploma in paralegal studies, then pursue paralegal professional certification afterwards.

Paralegal students in certificate programs can expect to take required courses in subjects such as:

  • Introduction to law and the legal system
  • Civil procedure
  • Legal research and writing
  • Contract law

In addition students may also choose electives which can help hone skills in a specialty area of the law. Some of the areas you may be able to focus on are:

Paralegal certificate programs can offer more flexibility than many students may anticipate. In fact, some paralegal courses are taught online.

Many paralegals suggest enrolling in a program that is approved by the American Bar Association. When researching schools, ask about financial aid, job placement services, advising and if any previous legal classes can be counted as credit.

Paralegal certification state requirements

Educational requirements to become a certified paralegal differ on a state-by-state basis. Anyone who wishes to become a paralegal should research their state’s specifications and standards of practice prior to enrolling in a program. Here are five different examples of states and their education and certification requirements for their paralegals:

California paralegal certification

California is one of the few states with unique educational standards for becoming a paralegal. There are some educational exceptions, however basic California standards require a certificate earned from an ABA (American Bar Association) approved program. Others may earn a certificate issued from a state-accredited institute with 24 credit hours in legal courses. 

Those who have earned a high school diploma, general equivalency diploma, bachelor’s or advanced degree must earn one year of law-related experience working under an attorney who has been an active member of the California state bar for at least three years. California paralegals will also need a written declaration from their supervising attorney stating their competence in performing paralegal tasks once they have completed that year of experience.

Florida paralegal certification

Florida paralegals can earn their certification through a variety of educational routes. Paralegals may complete a certificate program and earn an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. A few universities within the state of Florida may also offer master’s programs focusing on paralegal studies or even ABA certificate programs.

Certificate programs in Florida may be ideal for those who have earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-related major yet still wish to become a paralegal or pursue a legal career.

There are currently four different national certification exams for paralegals available, however, most paralegals choose to take the CLA/CP exam as it is a requirement to become a Florida Certified Paralegal or Florida Registered Paralegal. To qualify for the Florida CLA/CP certification exam paralegals must already be NALA-certified CPs and must also take an oath to uphold the moral and ethical standards of the position.

Louisiana paralegal certification

Louisiana issues paralegal certifications (the LCP) once paralegals have passed two different exams, the national CLA/CP exam as well as the Louisiana Certification Exam. Louisiana has unique state laws requiring paralegals to show a strong understanding of the state law alongside the national exam’s curriculum. As a result, paralegals in Louisiana who have passed a national exam are referred to simply as certified paralegals. These paralegals only officially earn their LCP state certification upon passing both mandated exams.

To sit for the LCP exam, paralegals must have completed an ABA-approved paralegal program that included a minimum of 60 total credit hours with 15 of the hours in legal courses.

Paralegals will have a three-year grace period to pass the Louisiana Certification Exam once they have passed their national CLA/CP exam.

North Carolina paralegal certification

North Carolina’s educational prerequisites for paralegal certification include earning an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in paralegal studies or a Juris Doctorate degree. Paralegals may also earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field of study along with a post-graduate certificate in paralegal studies.

In 2004 the North Carolina Supreme Court adopted a plan for paralegal certification created by the North Carolina State Bar. This plan allows paralegals to choose their title and level of certification voluntarily. As a result, paralegals in North Carolina can earn the title N.C. certified paralegal, N.C. state bar-certified paralegal, paralegal certified by the N.C. state bar board of paralegal certification (known as the NCCP). The NCCP certification requires meeting the educational prerequisites and passing the state certification exam.

Texas paralegal certification

Texas was the first state to establish a paralegal division within its State Bar Association. The state has instituted a voluntary certification for paralegals issued through the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

The TBLS certification is available to paralegals with prior experience who are looking to specialize in one specific area of law. For example, Texas paralegals can choose to specialize in civil, criminal, family, personal injury and real estate law. 

Paralegals must have a minimum of five years of work experience, with three years in a specialized concentration of law in order to meet the certification exam’s prerequisites.

Paralegal certification agencies

Once you’ve earned your degree or certificate from an accredited paralegal program, you can apply for professional certification. This certification will be issued by one of three national agencies once you complete the required study and pass the issuing agency’s exam. The three agencies and the professional certifications they endorse are:

National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA): NALA has established standards for certification requiring a mix of education and experience. Paralegals who meet these standards are eligible to take a two-day examination administered three times a year at regional testing centers. Those who pass this exam may use the designation Certified Legal Assistant/Certified Paralegal (CLA/CP).

National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA): The NFPA-administered Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) offers professional recognition to paralegals with different combinations of education and experience. Those who pass this examination may use the designation Registered Paralegal (RP).

American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI): The AAPI administers the American Alliance Certification Program (AACP). It is not necessary to take an exam to receive AACP certification. Any paralegal with five years of work experience and met education requirements is eligible to apply for certification.

Some paralegals choose to earn their certification after working and gaining some experience on the job, while others study for their certification right after graduation and before pursuing their first job. It’s important to progress at your own pace and chart the course that works for you, and to consider any professional goals your employer may have set for you if you’re already in the field.

Working for a law firm can help paralegals gain an understanding of how to use their skill sets in the most applicable and helpful way. “You may find a law firm that doesn’t fully make use of your skills, but you can begin helping the firm when you make the effort to show them how they can, and that you are capable. This is important, not only for the legal team but also for the firm’s clients to see,” said Derek Henry, a paralegal based in Houston, Texas.

joe edwards

Written and reported by:

Joe Edwards

Staff Writer

With professional insight from:

Derek Henry

Paralegal, Houston, Texas