In a largely unregulated profession with few state licensing or registration requirements, professional certification has become the standard of excellence that many paralegals strive for and that many employers demand.
Professional certification exams are offered through three nationally recognized paralegal professional organizations:
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP)
- Registered Paralegal (RP)
- The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- Certified Paralegal (CP)
- Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP)
- The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS) (formerly the National Association of Legal Secretaries)
- Professional Paralegal (PP)
- Specialty Certification (SC)
Each organization has slightly different requirements for renewing certification. However, they all require that paralegals complete continuing legal education (CLE).
The exams these organizations offer provide a standardized assessment of a paralegal’s skills and knowledge; so they have become one of the primary ways prospective employers, court systems, clients and colleagues can evaluate a paralegal’s competence at a glance. In fact, the certifications offered through these organizations are the only universally recognized credentials in the paralegal profession since there are no other official uniform standards from state to state.
To be clear, professional certification for paralegals is strictly voluntary, and many paralegals have enjoyed very successful careers without ever earning a professional designation. But for many paralegals, earning a nationally-recognized credential is a sound investment and a great way to distinguish themselves from their colleagues.
National certification requires thorough preparation. Paralegals often form study groups or take courses designed to help them pass the exams. However, the benefits of being nationally certified can outweigh the demands of preparing for the exam. National certification can lead to promotions, increased salaries, job opportunities, teaching and mentoring opportunities and peer recognition, in addition to the personal satisfaction gained by completing the certification process.
Professional Certification is NOT the Same as an Academic Certificate
Paralegal certification exams offered through NALA, NALS or NFPA are NOT the same as a paralegal certificate you would earn by taking courses through a college, university, or proprietary school. Certificate programs are purely academic, like any other college program, and by themselves the only thing they represent is the level of education you have completed. They don’t say anything about how good of a student you might have been or how well you mastered the concepts in your courses.
Think of this way: It’s entirely possible to earn a certificate from a community college with straight Ds, but a D student isn’t likely to be able to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge by acing one of the professional certification exams.
A paralegal who has completed the requirements for certification through NALA, NALS or NFPA is said to be “certified” and can demonstrate this proudly by putting their credential after their name (ex., Jane Doe, CP), while a paralegal who has completed a certificate program is considered “certificated,” which by itself doesn’t let you add any cool credentials to your business card.
It’s worth noting that some academic certificate programs do teach to national certification standards and would be useful in helping graduates prepare to go on to earn their professional certification through NALA, NALS or NFPA.
Cost of National Certification: Professional Certification IS a Sound Investment
The cost to take the national certification exams ranges from $150 to $300, excluding the cost of any study materials or courses that a paralegal might opt to use:
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) – $215 exam fee for NFPA members or $250 exam fee for non-members
- Registered Paralegal (RP) – $225 exam fee for NFPA members or $250 for non-members
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- Certified Paralegal (CP) – $250 for NALA members or $275 for non-members
- Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) – $250 for NALA members or $300 for non-members
The Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)
- Professional Paralegal (PP) – $150 for NALS members or $200 for non-members
- Specialty Certification (SC) – $150 for members or $200 for non-members.
Additional costs would include things like non-refundable application fees (typically $25-$50). If you don’t pass the first time, there would also be fees associated with retaking the exams in their entirety or certain sections of the exams.
Some local paralegal professional organizations offer needs and merit-based scholarships to help cover these fees. This would involve applying and often submitting an essay to explain why you are a strong candidate and why your situation makes it difficult for you to cover the costs on your own. Employers may also incentivize their employees to become certified by paying the associated costs
In addition to the cost of taking the national certification exams, there are associated costs for recertification, such as continuing legal education (CLE) courses and the membership fees for the professional associations. Some employers will pay for these expenses, demonstrating their commitment to hiring and supporting qualified paralegal professionals.
National Certification Brings Higher Salaries
In addition to showing a prospective/current employer your commitment to the profession and your desire to pursue continuing education, national certification may just be a good financial decision. A 2016 NALA compensation survey found that paralegals holding NALA designations earned significantly more than their non-certified counterparts.
For example, in 2016, a paralegal with CP certification earned $59,660, compared to $55,187 for a paralegal without the designation.
Likewise, paralegals with NALA’s ACP certification earned an average salary of $73,321, while those without this designation earned $57,340.
Levels of Certification
Primary generalist certification for entry and mid-level paralegals cover core competencies- Basic certification for entry-level paralegals or those still early in their careers, cover paralegal core competencies like procedural law, substantive law, written communication, verbal communication, ethics, preparation of legal documents and law office technology.
All three national certifying bodies offer primary generalist certification for entry and mid-level professionals who meet the minimum education requirements to take the certification exam. Certain provisions are made so that paralegals with plenty of experience but who may not have much formal education can also become eligible, but qualifying through education is still the primary path to earning entry/mid-level certification, and is the path most paralegals take. This means that any paralegal with a qualifying education is eligible to take certification exams at this level.
There are three entry-level or early-career examinations available to paralegals:
- The CRP (Core Registered Paralegal) offered through NFPA
- The CP (Certified Paralegal) offered through NALA
- The PP (Professional Paralegal) offered through NALS
Advanced generalist certification for experienced paralegals – More advanced generalist certification is only available to paralegals with substantive experience to draw from. Advanced generalist certification is only available to paralegals who have maintained primary certification in good standing, and who have been in the field long enough to develop true experience-based expertise.
NFPA’s RP (Registered Paralegal) is the one advanced generalist certification available to experienced paralegals.
Advanced specialty certification for experienced paralegals- Advanced specialty certification is reserved for paralegals who have put years into developing knowledge and skills unique to a particular area of law. All paralegals are specialists in the sense that they work for law firms and legal departments that work primarily in certain areas of law, whether it’s a large software company that needs to offer trademark licenses or a small law firm that practices family law. Advanced specialty certifications simply allow paralegals the chance to earn a specialty designation that denotes their expertise in the area of law they routinely work in. Some advanced specialty certifications require paralegals to complete an education course through the certifying body in preparation for the exam.
There are two advanced specialty certification options:
- ACP (Advanced Certified Paralegal) offered through NALA
- Specialty Certificate Program offered through NALS
NALA’s CP (Certified Paralegal): Paralegal Generalist Certification – Entry and Mid-Level
Establish Yourself as a Competent Paralegal
NALA’s Certified Paralegal (CP) program was established in 1976 as a way to distinguish the most ambitious paralegals. As of 2016, more than 18,000 paralegals and legal secretaries have earned NALA’s entry-level designations, while another 3,400 earned their advanced certification.
According to NALA, the ABA acknowledges the CP as a “credible measure of paralegal competence.”
The process of earning and maintaining the CP credential involves:
NALA’s Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP): Paralegal Specialist Certification
Advanced Designation for CPs with Specialization in Mind
Once you’ve put the time and effort in and achieved an advanced level of knowledge in a specific area of law, it may be time to turn your attention to the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) designation through NALA.
To qualify for this designation, you must be a CP in good standing. You can earn the credential by taking one or more of the advanced courses in one of the 26 practice areas recognized by NALA.
These web-based courses are about 20 hours in length and are delivered online. Each course is organized into multiple modules and includes exercises completed through a curriculum-based model, followed by an assessment.
Just some of the areas you can explore in-depth via the Advanced Certified Paralegal program include:
- Estate planning
- Noncorporate entities
- Personal injury (8 practice areas)
- Business organizations (incorporated, noncorporate entities)
- Family law
- Real estate
NFPA’s CRP (Core Registered Paralegal): Paralegal Generalist Certification– Entry and Mid-Level
Get a Jump Start on Professional Certification Early in Your Career
NFPA, founded in 1974, was the nation’s first paralegal association. Today, it is still focused on its original goal of being an issues-driven, policy-oriented professional association, representing more than 9,000 members.
NFPA offers two levels of certification: for the entry-level paralegal and the mid-level paralegal.
CORE Registered Paralegal certification through NFPA will authorize you to use the CRP credential after your name.
NFPA’s RP (Registered Paralegal): Paralegal Generalist Certification – Advanced
Demonstrate Your Advanced Experience in the Paralegal Profession
Once you’ve gained some substantive experience in the paralegal field, you may advance onto the RP designation through NFPA by taking the Paralegal Advanced Competency (PACE) Exam.
NALS PP (Professional Paralegal): Paralegal Generalist Certification – Mid-Level
Display Your Commitment to Continued Learning
NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals offers the Professional Paralegal designation (PP), you must pass the Professional Paralegal exam, which requires meeting one of the following requirements:
- Have at least five years of experience performing paralegal/legal assistant duties
- Graduate from a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies
- Graduate from an ABA-approved Paralegal Program.
- Graduate from another accredited paralegal program that includes at least 60 semester hours and includes at least 15 semester hours in substantive law
- Graduate from a bachelor’s degree program in an unrelated field and have at least one year of experience performing paralegal/legal assistant duties
You must complete the PP Examination Application and earn approval to take the exam, a one-day, four-part examination that includes:
- Written Communications
- Legal Knowledge and Skills
- Ethics and Judgement Skills
- Substantive Law
The cost of certification is $150 for members and $200 for non-members.
There are no set testing locations. Your testing location will be arranged at the time you submit an application.
The PP certificate is valid for 5 years. At least 75 hours of continuing legal education credits are required to recertify. At least 50 hours of CLE must be on substantive areas and at least 5 hours on ethics.
NALS also offers the Professional Legal Secretary (PLS)/Certified Legal Professional (CLP) exam that allows lawyer assistants to carry either the PLS or CLP credential, whichever they prefer. Though this is a certification that plenty of paralegals hold, it is better suited to legal support professionals other than paralegals.
NALS Specialty Certificate Program: Paralegal Specialist Certification
Establish Yourself as an Expert in a Particular Area of Law
Once you are ready to demonstrate expertise in an area of law, you can pursue the NALS Specialty Certificate in one of the following areas:
- Administrative law
- Appellate law
- Bankruptcy law
- Business law
- Civil litigation
- Contract law
- Corporate law
- Criminal law
- Estate planning/Probate
- Family law
- Immigration law
- Insurance law
- Intellectual property
- Juvenile law
- Law office management
- Personal injury law
- Real estate law
- Trial management
You can earn a Specialty Certificate by obtaining 50 continuing legal education credit hours within a five-year period. You can earn CLE credits by attending seminars, workshops, and webinars, teaching seminars and workshops, authoring articles and publications, and completing postsecondary education courses. Certificates are valid for a period of 5 years.
The cost for each specialty certificate you attain would be $150 for members and $200 for non-members.
Paralegals with specialty certification may display their designation like this: Jane Doe, PP-SC Civil Litigation
The American Alliance of Paralegals Inc.
The American Alliance of Paralegals Inc. also offers national certification for qualified paralegals. However, unlike NALS, NALA, and NFPA, examination-based certifications, a designation through the American Alliance is fully dependent upon your education and experience.
To earn the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) designation, you must have at least 5 years of substantive legal experience, along with one of the following:
- A bachelor’s degree or advanced degree in any discipline; OR
- An associate’s degree in paralegal studies from an ABA-approved program or a program that is a voting institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education; OR
- A certificate from an ABA-approved paralegal program or a program that is a voting institutional member of the American Association for Paralegal Education.
Once you have submitted an Application for Certification, a transcript showing your paralegal education, and an affidavit of declaration from an attorney who attests to your work experience, you will receive the AACP credential. The cost of certification is $75.
To maintain the AACP credential, you must complete at least 18 hours of continuing legal education every three years, with at least 3 of those hours in ethics.
The American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants
To become an LNCC, you must take and pass a certification examination. To qualify for the exam, you must currently hold an RN license, you must have at least five years of experience practicing as an RN, and you must have at least 2,000 hours of legal nurse consulting experience within the last five years.
The certification examination is based on an analysis of the legal nurse consulting practice. The test consists of 200 multiple choice questions that take about 4 hours to complete. Content areas include:
- Civil rights
- Employment discrimination
- Life care planning
- Long term care litigation/elder law
- Medical malpractice
- Personal injury
- Product liability
- Regulatory compliance
- Risk management
- Toxic tort
- Workers’ compensation
You must take the exam at an IQT testing site. You can view upcoming exam dates and test sites here. The cost to take the exam is $325 if you are an AALNC member, or $425 if you aren’t.
The LNCC designation is good for 5 years. Upon renewal, you must hold a current RN license, show proof that you practiced at least 2,000 hours of legal nurse consulting in the past 5 years, and that you completed at least 60 contact hours of continuing education. Continuing education may be in form of traditional continuing education activities, academic coursework, presentations, and publications.
Association of Legal Administrators (ALA)
The Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) offers the Certified Legal Manager (CLM) professional designation for legal administrators. The CLM designation may be as a Principal Administrator or Functional Specialist (HR manager, finance manager, etc.)
To qualify to take the CLM certification examination, you must also be currently employed full-time in a legal organization, such as a legal clinic, law firm, governmental agency, etc. and have at least 24 months of experience in a legal setting.
You must also complete at least 2 hours of coursework in each of the following management categories within 2 years of applying for certification to qualify:
- Writing skills
- Communication skills
- Self-management skills
- Information technology
- Organizational development
You can satisfy the above coursework requirements by taking courses/continuing education courses/seminars/conferences through the ALA, the American Bar Association (ABA), or other professional associations.
Once you’ve applied and are accepted, you must take and pass the CLM certification examination, which will assess your knowledge in:
- Financial management
- Human resources management
- Legal industry/business management
- Operations management
The CLM exam is offered in the spring and fall at Pearson VUE testing sites throughout the country. The cost of the exam is $529 for ALA members and $629 for non-members. You can read more about applying for and scheduling the exam here.
State Certification and Other Legal Requirements
Some states offer their own certification process in order to encourage high standards of professionalism, to help employers identify qualified employees, and to ensure that their state’s paralegals have a solid knowledge base when it comes to state law.
A few state bar associations (Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida) offer voluntary state certification, and in Texas, paralegals can choose to become certified in one or more of six areas of law through a program sponsored by the state bar.
In California, paralegals who may want to offer legal document preparation services as independent contractors and small business owners would be required to hold the LDA (Legal Document Assistant) certification through a professional association known as the California Association of Legal Document Assistants (CALDA). Arizona offers a similar certification known at the LDP (Legal Document Preparer). The LDA and LDP roles and designation is considered distinct from the paralegal profession. Paralegals routinely prepare legal documents as part of the job when working for law firms, government agencies and corporate legal departments. Still, many freelance paralegals in California and Arizona choose to obtain this voluntary recognition to increase the professional services they can offer independently.
Washington State has implemented what they call the Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT) program and several other states are in the process of doing the same. The LLLT program recognizes paralegals who have met education, experience and exam requirements proving that they are capable of providing legal services that include the ability to actually advise clients on certain matters in limited areas of law without attorney oversight.
In all other states where voluntary certification is an option, it is a less official process offered through the state paralegal professional associations and does not result in an expanded scope of practice or any additional practice privileges.
But unlike nationally-recognized professional certification, these credentials offered through state bar or paralegal professional associations are primarily recognized within state borders or the immediate surrounding region. These designations are important and highly encouraged for the unique benefits the provide, but should not be confused with national certification, which is only available through NALS, NALA or NFPA.