Which Paralegal Credential is Right for You?
Paralegal and legal assistant jobs comprise a fast-growing sector of the legal field. In 2008, there were 263,800 paralegals working in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of paralegal jobs will increase by 28 percent through 2018. Likewise, competition among paralegals for the best jobs will also increase. In order to stand out from the crowd of candidates, paralegals and legal assistants can earn credentials from several certification organizations.
There are four main paralegal credentials available:
- The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the Certified Legal Assistant or Certified Paralegal (CLA/CP).
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers the Registered Paralegal (RP).
- NALS (the National Association of Legal Secretaries) offers the Professional Paralegal (PP) credential.
- The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI) offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP).
If you've decided that you want to earn a credential in order to improve your job prospects, the next challenge you face is deciding which credential is right for you.
Certification Program History & Reputation
- One consideration is how long each of the organizations has been offering its certification. In other words, how reputable and well-known is the certification program?
- NALS was established in 1929, and incorporated in 1949, but it has only been offering the PP exam since 2004.
- The NALA was established in 1975, and it offers the oldest paralegal certification—the CLA/CP credential has been offered since 1976.
- Founded in 1974, the NFPA began offering its Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) for the RP credential in 1996.
- The AAPI, which was founded in 2003, is the youngest organization. Unlike the other organizations, it does not have an exam. Instead, the AAPI grants the AACP credential based on a paralegal's education and experience.
Another consideration is how many members an organization has, and how many people it has already certified. A large membership is often reflective of the fact that an organization has attractive resources to offer its members. And if an organization has certified a big number of paralegals, this often mean that the specific credential is desirable to many employers.
- NALS has approximately 10,000 members, and 436 certified PPs.
- The NALA has about 6,000 members, and around 15,000 certified CLA/CPs.
- The NFPA has more than 11,000 members, and about 560 certified RPs.
- The AAPI does not disclose membership statistics. There are about 70 AACPs.
Rigorous Eligibility Requirements
The final way to compare the different credentials and choose which one is right for you is to look at the tests and their eligibility requirements—the more stringent the requirements, the more reputable the credential. The AACP, for example, requires that its members possess at least a paralegal certificate. The other organizations allow anyone with at least four years of paralegal experience to take their exams. The AACP, however, does not require the completion of a test in order to earn its credential.
Another way of comparing the credentials is to look at the requirements for renewal. Standards that are more strenuous can indicate a higher degree of difficulty. Those who possess a PP credential must renew it every five years, which requires the completion of 75 hours of continuing legal education. The CLA/CP credential must be renewed every five years with 50 hours of continuing legal education. The RP credential must be renewed every two years with 12 hours of CLE. And the AACP requires renewal every two years and 18 hours of CLE.
Deciding on a certification program can be difficult. In the end, the best way to decide on a program may be to speak with a lawyer who has hired paralegals, and ask what credentials he or she finds most impressive. You may also want to explore each organization's website to better judge the benefits of membership and to understand exactly how each test works. The tests that are longer and that cover more areas of the law and paralegal profession are probably going to be your best bet.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
American Bar Association
American Alliance of Paralegals
National Association of Legal Secretaries
National Association of Legal Assistants
National Federation of Paralegal Associations