What is paralegal certification? In the world of law, paralegals are an extremely important asset to government offices and law offices, alike. Paralegals assist attorneys with casework and research. A paralegal reports to specified associates or partners throughout his or her practice. Paralegals do not present cases in court, cannot give legal advice, and do not hold a Juris Doctorate.
Paralegals have a wide array of options for entry level jobs. Some paralegals have completed a bachelor’s program in paralegal studies or criminal justice, while others have an associate’s degree; still others have only on the job training, working from the bottom up at a law or government office. There is, nonetheless, one area of training that can increase a paralegal’s chance of being hired or making more money, and that is paralegal certification.
Becoming a nationally certified or registered paralegal depends on taking and passing examinations from either the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Some states have other smaller paralegal certification schools or even training facilities. There are also states that have specific continuing education requirements for a paralegal to be considered certified.
Throughout the United States, paralegals have also been known as legal assistants; however, paralegals and legal assistants are actually not one and the same, although they may both be defined as such by some sources. According to the American Bar Association, “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity that performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” This definition lumps both paralegals and legal assistants in the same category; in spite of this, it is very general regarding the actual duties or qualifications for each.
The daily tasks for a paralegal include: legal research, drafting legal documents, communicating with clients and witnesses, investigating files, drafting court paperwork, attending hearings, and managing files. Paralegals work very closely with attorneys reviewing cases and ensuring the attorneys are up to date on the latest of each case. There are a variety of other duties that could occur on a daily basis, but paralegals mainly handle actual casework and tasks delegated by the attorney.
Legal assistants, on the other hand, can also be known as legal secretaries. A legal assistant handles more administrative tasks throughout the day. Some daily duties include: answering phones, filing paperwork, providing clerical support for multiple people in the office, including typing letters or other documents and scheduling appointments. Legal assistants do not deal with actual casework and are unable to answer questions specific to a particular file.
Legal assistants can often advance to become paralegals after experience and possibly some paralegal training and certification. The pay scales for paralegals are generally higher than those of legal assistants, due to the additional amount of knowledge and skills necessary. Additionally, paralegals are usually focused on one particular type of law, for instance criminal law or tax law, whereas legal secretaries may have more general knowledge of administrative tasks rather than legal fields.
Paralegals may also gain raises and have better opportunities by obtaining advanced paralegal certification. Not all law offices will adhere to this, but having additional accreditation is almost always a great idea to further a career. As paralegals are sometimes considered the backbone of a law office, having continuing education and certifications can often be just what a paralegal needs to push a career further.
History of the Paralegal Profession
The history of the paralegal profession in the United States can be traced back to the 1960s. During this period, the number of people needing legal services was growing, and the industry was required to do something to decrease the amount of money spent on these services that could be prepared by a professional, other than a lawyer. Legal secretaries were already employed throughout the field, and many of these individuals were able to take their knowledge and training a further step.
The American Bar Association (ABA) first formally recognized paralegals in 1967 by issuing a formal statement regarding non-lawyers performing legal tasks. The following year, there was even a special committee announced to effectively promote what are now known as paralegals. Within the next few years, further advances were made for paralegals; in 1971 the ABA adopted the term “legal assistant” for those performing non-lawyer legal tasks. This same year, the committee now known as the Standing Committee of Paralegals (SCOP) was introduced.
Throughout the 1970s, many paralegal and legal assistant associations began forming. One organization, the National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS), previously known as the National Association for Legal Secretaries, can be traced back to 1929. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) was founded in 1975. One year earlier, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) began its development.
Additionally since the 1970s, paralegals began finding themselves employed in various settings and industries outside the typical law firm although paralegals employed by private law firms still make up approximately 70% of the paralegal population. The ABA has helped develop guidelines and recommendations on ways lawyers and other corporations can integrate paralegals without violating any laws or legal codes. In 1991, the ABA released the Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Legal Assistant Services to help avoid any unauthorized practices of law (UPL) charges against paralegals.
Throughout the five decades paralegals have been nationally recognized, the major organizations, including the ABA, have fought against and rejected any national regulations for education and training. Due to the differences of legal practices in the 50 U.S. states, these organizations have pushed for states to mandate the educational requirements rather than the federal government. Currently, California is the only state throughout the U.S. that mandates paralegal certification.
In the beginning, paralegals had no formal education or training at all, only knowledge and skills gained through their former jobs as legal secretaries. Now, required education is based upon the industry and the employer. Some industries, such as the federal government, require paralegals to have a formal education, certification, or previous experience. Other employers, such as small law firms, may not require a degree and may want experience instead.
As of 1973, there were only 31 paralegal educational programs, most of which were affiliated with a law school. That number has grown into the 1000s, with virtually none with law school affiliations. These programs and schools offer a wide array of degrees and accreditations.
Law firms and other paralegal employers now value the vast number of efficient services paralegals can provide. Although the profession is not as old as many, there are currently between 200,000 and 300,000 paralegals throughout the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor also expects continued growth in the field, despite stagnant outlooks in many other professions. There has never been a better time to earn a paralegal certification.