July 26, 2020

What is the Difference Between a Paralegal Certificate and Certification?

Janis Walter, J.D., Professor Emeritus and former Paralegal Program Coordinator, University of Cincinnati, and past Chair, ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals Approval Commission

It is important to distinguish between a paralegal certificate and certification, as the terms are often confused.  The terms are not interchangeable and have separate meanings. A certificate is a credential that verifies a student has successfully completed a paralegal educational program. Generally, these programs are offered at universities and colleges.  The prerequisites may vary but many require the student seeking a certificate to have already earned an associate or bachelor’s degree in another area of study.  So, if a program offers a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, the student will have already obtained a bachelor’s degree in an area other than paralegal studies. It is possible that the student will take only legal specialty courses as part of their certificate work, as their general education requirements were satisfied by completing an associate or bachelor’s degree. Upon successful completion of the institution’s educational requirements, the student is issued a certificate of completion.   The student is now certificated in paralegal studies and able to work in the field as a paralegal.

The terms "paralegal certificate" and "certification" are not interchangeable and have separate meanings.

The terms "paralegal certificate" and "certification" are not interchangeable and have separate meanings.

In contrast, certification is the process through which an organization grants formal recognition to an individual who meets certain established requirements. After completing a paralegal educational program, the graduates may pursue certification to validate their mastery of the subject matter. Certification may enhance their employment prospects and increase their income.  To become certified, a paralegal must successfully complete a certification exam and/or other requirements of the certifying organization. The other requirements generally include educational requirements and paralegal work experience.  Once the paralegal has met the established criteria, they may use a special designation namely, “certified paralegal.”   To maintain their certification, paralegals may need to complete yearly continuing education units. 

Currently, all certification programs in the United States are voluntary.  Two of the national paralegal organizations, NALA and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offer certification exams. The scope, length and requirements for the credential are determined by each organization. The requirements differ, so it is important to check with the credentialing organization to determine the requirements. Some state bar associations, such as North Carolina and Ohio, and state paralegal associations, such as Kentucky, also offer voluntary certification by examination for paralegals working in those states.  Other states, including Texas and California, offer certification in select areas of law. California is currently the only state that has issued specific paralegal regulations. Persons using the titles "paralegal," or "legal assistant," must meet certain educational/experiential qualifications and comply with continuing education requirements. Paralegals in Indiana, who have met specified education and experience requirements, can register with the Indiana Bar Association.  This enables the paralegal to identify themselves as an Indiana Registered Paralegal. Several states recognize certified paralegals if they have successfully completed a national paralegal examination. Paralegals should check with their state authority to ascertain the necessary requirements for certification within their own state.

The American Bar Association (ABA) does not certify individual paralegals.  Instead, the ABA approves paralegal studies educational programs that have applied for and passed a comprehensive self-study. The ABA also reapproves programs that apply for reapproval and demonstrate that they are in compliance with the Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs.  The ABA's approval process applies to the paralegal education program rather than to the individual paralegal. Therefore, graduates of ABA approved paralegal programs offering paralegal certificate degrees are certificated paralegals and may state that they graduated from an ABA approved paralegal education program. They may not identify themselves as an “ABA Certified Paralegal” or claim that they have “ABA Certification”.