Paralegal Certification: A Basic Guide

In the legal world, paralegals hold an extremely important role in both law firms and government agency offices alike. Paralegals are vital members of the legal team that are responsible for assisting attorneys with casework, investigating research for court cases, managing records, and drafting necessary legal documents. While some paralegals achieve a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or criminal justices, others may have an associate’s paralegal degree, certificate, or on the job training. Nonetheless, there is one area of training that dramatically increases a paralegal’s chance of finding employment and earning higher wages – paralegal certification. If you are interested in increasing your marketability for a fascinating career in law, read on to find out more about how you can become a certified paralegal.

What is Paralegal Certification?
According to the American Bar Association, certification is the process through which non-government agencies award recognition to an individual who has exceeded the required qualifications for mastery in the given field. In order to achieve certification, individuals are required to pass an examination designed by the sponsoring association, and satisfy all established educational and/or experiential requirements. Certification is intended to demonstrate to prospective employers an expertise of certain skills and knowledge necessary in the paralegal field, as well as a strong dedication to the profession.

The National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. is currently the issuing body and sponsor of the certification examination for paralegals. The NALA Certifying Board for Paralegals is comprised of advanced paralegals, attorneys, and paralegal educators who are responsible for the content, principles, and administration of the certification exams. The association offers the Certified Paralegal (CP) examination on a strictly voluntary process, since there are no mandatory certification requirements for paralegals in the United States at this time. That being said, professional certification is always highly respected by both employers and other paralegals in the field.

Certification Eligibility Requirements
In order to be eligible for taking the Certified Paralegal examination, paralegals must meet one or more of the following education and training requirements:

  • Graduation from a paralegal studies program that is approved by the American Bar Association, an associate paralegal degree program, a bachelor’s degree program related to paralegal or criminal justice studies, or a post-baccalaureate certificate program in paralegal studies. Legal assistant programs that consist of at least 60 semester hours, with 15 semester hours of substantial legal coursework are also approved.
  • Bachelor’s degree in any major with a minimum of one year of experience working as a paralegal. Successful completion of 15 semester hours of substantial legal coursework is considered equivalent to one year of experience.
  • High school diploma or equivalent GED with a minimum of seven years of experience under the direct supervision of a member of the American Bar Association. Sufficient evidence of a minimum of 20 hours of continuing legal education credits within two years of the application date is also required.

Depending on your specific goals and interests, there are an estimated 600 paralegal education programs in the United States to help you exceed these requirements. Community colleges, public and private four-year universities, business colleges, and proprietary institutions all offer paralegal education in various formats and lengths. When searching for an institution’s paralegal program, it is highly recommended that you pay close attention to the content and nature of the curriculum. Make sure that the courses teach practical paralegal job skills, as well as the underlying legal theory. If possible, you should also gain experiential learning through internship, clinical, or practicum opportunities. Possessing a broad understanding of legal research, ethics, litigation, contracts, and communication skills will be a significant aid in preparation for certification.

How to Apply for the Certification
The application process for certification consists of two main steps. First, candidates must be admitted to the Certified Paralegal program by completing an application form and filing it with the NALA headquarters. It is suggested that you ensure you meet all the eligibility requirements and fill out the form completely before submitting, since this will help avoid the delay of returning the application. Applications may be submitted at all times, but it will not be accepted later than the application deadline established for the next testing window.

Once admitted, NALA will send an acknowledgement for the application and an Authorization to Test form through e-mail. You must then schedule a testing time through the PSI Testing Center Network to take the CP examination during an open testing window. For those who are not located within practical range from a testing center, there is also the option to take the examination at a non-PSI testing center, but it must be approved by the NALA prior. These centers may include schools, law firms, or corporations that satisfy the facility and equipment standards. Whichever method you choose, it is highly encouraged that you make the appointment immediately after being accepted, since space is often limited.

What to Expect on the Certified Paralegal Examination
The Certified Paralegal examination is a comprehensive test based on federal law theories and procedures. The five major subjects that are included on the examination are Ethics, Communications, Legal Research, Substantive Law, and Judgment and Analytical Ability. As if this was not enough, the section that examines substantive law is comprised of an additional five mini examinations. As of September 2013, the sections cover the American Legal System, Contracts, Business Organizations, and Civil Litigation.

When taking the Certified Paralegal examination, examinees are required to successfully complete all five parts of the test within the two-day testing window. The examination is calculated out of a total of 550 points, but the points are broken down as:

  • Communications – 75 points
  • Ethics – 75 points
  • Judgment and Analytical Ability – 150 points
  • Legal Research – 50 points
  • Substantive Law – 200 points (40 points for each sub-section)

Although the total number of points required to pass each exam section does vary depending on the version of the test, the passing scores range from 76 to 81 percent of the total possible points for each section. While passing scores to fluctuate on different versions, the Certifying Board guarantees that the same standards will be established for each test version. After successfully completing the examination, you will be the proud owner of a Certified Paralegal Credential.

Paralegal certification commands respect from prospective employers and increases earning potential. As laws change and the legal industries grow, it is expected that more states will require certification. Therefore, paralegals that already obtain certification will be ahead of those who need to return for an additional paralegal degree and certification. Since the advantages of holding a paralegal certification far outweigh the costs, it is recommended that you utilize this guide to help you achieve mastery in the paralegal field.