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Paralegal Certification: The Ticket to Unique Marketability, Increased Productivity, and Profitability

June 30th, 2014

There is little doubt that the paralegal profession has changed dramatically during the course of the last decade. Academic programs have never been more advanced and specialized with some accredited by the American Bar Association. Paralegal associations on a state and national level have never been more organized and active. Despite much professional advancement, however, many aspects of the paralegal profession remain cloaked with confusion by practicing attorneys. Perhaps the largest area of misunderstanding lies in the area of the paralegal certification process.

Paralegals and employing law firms may believe they can refer and market their paralegals as being "certified" by virtue of completing a formal training course or college level program. While the paralegal and employing law firm could indeed indicate such an individual is "certificated" or "degreed" upon graduation, implying that the graduate is "certified" is misleading, and arguably unethical conduct and yet, it seems to be occurring at an alarming rate nationwide.

Paralegal certification is a voluntary process by which the individual demonstrates a very high level of competence and specialization. Currently, the three largest national paralegal associations offering certification options are:  (1) The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA); (2) The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA); and (3) The National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS). Often referenced as "bar exams for paralegals," pursuing certification requires a great deal of preparation and commitment, but the benefits of achieving certification status can be staggering for both the individual paralegal, as well as the employing law firm.

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.[1]

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: Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP). Once a paralegal is designated a CLA/CP, they may then elect to participate in a number of advanced certified paralegal courses offered by NALA, and subsequently advertise themselves as an Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP).[2]

To maintain certification, CLA/CP's must complete at least fifty hours of CLE every five years of which five hours must be in the area of ethics. As of March 2014, there were 17,822 CLA/CP's nationwide. Additionally, as of June, 2014, while there were 3,291 Advanced Certified Paralegal Specialists.

NALS Certification:

Finally, NALS offers three certification options:  The Accredited Legal Professional (ALP), Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and Certified Professional Paralegal (PP).[3]  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. Currently, there are 3,215, 5,742, and 574 of each respectively.

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In today's legal practice and professional environment, law firms are in an unrelenting race to better market their services to the public. While the number of paralegals nationwide achieving the certification status continues to grow steadily, the numbers remain amazingly low when one considers the number of paralegals in the profession nationally.  This is even more apparent when examining the certification credential on a state by state level. For example, there are only 141 CLA/CP's, 4 CRP's, and 9 RP's, in the entire state of New Jersey.

With no formal "registration" requirement for paralegals in place in New Jersey, it is impossible to know the true number of paralegals practicing in the State. That said, with almost 80,000 licensed lawyers in New Jersey, one can safely assume there are tens of thousands of paralegals, yet so few are actually certified. This trend is applicable across the county, which means that law firms currently have an incredible opportunity to stay ahead of the competition by supporting their paralegal staff in pursuing certification.

Here are just a few examples of why certification can reap many different and substantial benefits to a legal practice. First, a law firm employing certified paralegals can market and advertise that the firm possesses the specialization and experience from top to bottom, which makes it uniquely qualified to handle even the most complex legal issues and cases. Second, the law firm using certified paralegal staff can market the distinguishing credentials of their staff in a way very few firms could. Third, a certified paralegal can be "billed out" at a higher hourly rate due to their experience and qualifications resulting in increased law firm profitability. Fourth, certified paralegals possess a high level of competence and administrative abilities which results in better law firm efficiency and high client satisfaction. One must not forget that keeping the client happy and meeting their expectations as efficiently as possible is the number one rule of a successful law practice.

The competition in the legal profession is only getting stiffer by the day and the marketing and advertising race to secure clients all the more difficult. The specialized knowledge and unique skills necessary to effectively represent a client are only becoming more challenging. A law firm that is not encouraging their paralegals to become certified and supporting their staff achieving their highest levels of competence are missing out on a major marketing and profitability opportunity for their practice.

[1] 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

[2] 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

[3] 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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