Demystifying Paralegal Credentials for Lawyers and Paralegals


By Alicia Mitchell-Mercer

Recently, I overheard a discussion regarding whether attorneys understand the content of paralegal programs and the meaning of the post-nominal certification credentials you increasingly see behind paralegals’ names. One person responded that many fledgling paralegals don’t understand the difference between being certified and having a certificate, so how can attorneys be expected to understand these distinctions. While these issues may not seem pressing, they are important.

Perhaps data tells a more accurate story than personal narrative. I surveyed 400 paralegals through social media groups with varying years of experience and asked them how informed they believe their attorneys are regarding paralegal education and certification credentials. I could have surveyed attorneys, but experience indicates that busy attorneys rarely respond to survey questions about their staff. Nonetheless, I believe we can glean valuable information from the paralegal responses.

The pie charts (below) reflect that 27.5% of paralegals believe their attorneys are uninformed regarding what they learned in their paralegal programs; 43.5% of paralegals believe that their attorneys are uninformed regarding paralegal certification programs, and thus attorneys do not understand the meaning (or purpose) of the accomplishment; and 34.3% report that their firms do not encourage paralegal certification or continued education.





Why Attorneys Should Care

Attorneys who operate businesses typically wear many different hats, but they also must know when and how to seek help from others. If you will be hiring paralegals in the future, you ought to know what their credentials mean so you can make an informed decision during the hiring process. This is especially true if you are hiring a paralegal with little or no experience and relying almost entirely on a paralegal certificate, degree, or other credential to separate the wheat from the chaff during the interview process.

The purpose of paralegal education and certification programs is to facilitate paralegal competency and ultimately enhance the quality of legal services to the public. The more a paralegal knows, the better the outcome of tasks delegated to them. If there is a commitment to ongoing education within the firm – recall the old master-apprentice model – paralegals will be able to excel at increasingly higher-level tasks.

Additionally, a conflict exists between using seasoned attorneys who have more experience and higher rates, and using paralegals who are less experienced but also less costly to the client. It is not uncommon for clients to push back against law firms who use attorneys to complete tasks that could have been completed by less expensive paralegals. While this may be a profitability enhancer when using the billable hour, this is not the most efficient or ethical way to staff legal matters and can lead to dissatisfied clients and poor client retention.

Why Paralegals Should Care

If you are a new paralegal, learning about the various education and certification programs can help you along your career path, support your firm’s goal in providing legal services with a spirit of excellence, and increase the baseline of knowledge in the paralegal profession as a whole. It is also important that you understand paralegal credentials so you can speak with some degree of intelligence during the interview process. In error, I’ve seen paralegal resumes list that they are ABA-certified. Go to LinkedIn and type “ABA Certified Paralegal” in the search bar and then click on “People.” We discuss this more later.

What They Didn’t Teach You About Your Paralegals In Law School

The paralegal profession has evolved significantly over the last 40 years. The paralegal role was created in the 1970s from the legal secretary position when attorneys realized secretaries could perform higher level tasks and bill for their time. Legal organizations including the ABA and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) blazed a new trail with the concept of trained paraprofessionals performing all kinds of legal work in a wide variety of legal settings.

The first instance in which the US Supreme Court addressed the recoverability of paralegal fees was under section 1988 of the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Awards Act of 1976. In Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274 (1989), the petitioner was seeking the award of attorney and paralegal fees after a lengthy litigation. The Court was asked whether the work of paralegals, law clerks, and recent law graduates could be reimbursed at market rates, rather than their cost to attorneys (wages).

The Court recognized that everyone – attorneys, paralegal employees, and clients – benefits from the proper utilization of paralegals. In its opinion, the Court stated:

By encouraging the use of lower cost paralegals rather than attorneys wherever possible, permitting market-rate billing of paralegal hours “encourages cost-effective delivery of legal services and, by reducing the spiraling cost of civil rights litigation, furthers the policies underlying civil rights statutes.”

The question before the US Supreme Court in Richlin Security Service Co. v. Chertoff, 553 U.S. 571 (2008) was very similar to that in Missouri v. Jenkins. However, instead of considering the award of paralegal fees under the Civil Rights Act, the court was asked to review if paralegal fees could be reimbursed at market rates under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Citing the Court’s decision in Missouri v. Jenkins the court again stated paralegal fees may be awarded at market rates.

Today paralegals can provide many of the services attorneys provide (under the supervision of a licensed attorney, of course) without going to law school. However, as the profession continues to grow, formal paralegal education and paralegal certification are becoming the standard.

Certificate, Certificated, Certified, and Certification – What’s the Difference?

Surprisingly, despite the proliferation of education and certification programs, many lawyers and paralegals are still confused when it comes to understanding paralegal credentials. Following is an overview of everything you need to know about the difference between certificate, certificated, certified, and certification in the paralegal field.

Paralegal Certificate ≠ Paralegal Certification

A paralegal certificate signifies successful completion of a paralegal education program. Paralegal programs are usually offered at universities and local community colleges. Upon successful completion of the institution’s educational requirements, the student is issued a certificate of completion. The student is then considered to be certificated in paralegal studies – not certified. Additionally, there are a number of colleges that offer undergraduate degrees in paralegal studies, paralegal technology, or other titles. Those students typically graduate with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree.

Remember that paralegal education programs may have different requirements and likely have different curriculum, contact hour requirements, and levels of quality. Therefore, if you are considering hiring a newly-graduated paralegal with no legal experience, it can be helpful to ask them for copies of transcripts so you can ascertain what courses they have completed in the certificate or degree program. This can give you an idea of the length and quality of the program as well as the knowledge areas covered.

ABA-Accredited Law Schools vs. ABA-Approved Paralegal Programs

Hiring managers love to throw around the term “ABA-approved” paralegal program. It is used as a buzzword, but many attorneys have no idea what the ABA approval process involves for paralegal programs. Understandably, they like the sound of ABA approval because they are generally familiar with the ABA accreditation standards of law schools.

The ABA approves paralegal programs with a minimum of 60 semester-hours. You can determine if a paralegal program is ABA approved by visiting here. However, know that not all paralegal programs, which meet ABA requirements, have applied for ABA approval. Some universities with ABA-compliant programs do not apply for approval due to costly fees, which you can see here if you are curious. The paralegal program of Duke University is a good example.

Duke’s position on ABA-approval is as follows and many other perfectly respectable colleges and universities take a similar position:

“The Duke Paralegal Certificate Program has chosen not to pursue ABA approval, as is the case with the majority of paralegal programs. Of the approximately 1,000 paralegal programs nationwide, 267 are ABA approved (The Directory of ABA Approved Paralegal Programs, June 2014). The ABA does not formally “accredit” any paralegal program, but for a fee, the organization will approve programs that meet certain standards. Duke University is ranked in the top ten in the nation, and students can be assured that when attending the Paralegal Program at Duke, they will be receiving an education that meets Duke’s high academic standards.”

If the paralegal’s school is not listed with the ABA, you can also check the AAfPE (American Association for Paralegal Education) website here. Institutional Members of AAfPE are either ABA-approved or ‘in substantial compliance with ABA guidelines and accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency.” Again, not all programs that meet these requirements are members of AAfPE. To verify that institutions offering paralegal education programs are accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency, visit the US Dept. of Education website here.

Paralegal Certification

A certified paralegal is one that has met certain prerequisites of a governing state authority or an independent organization or association. Qualifying for certification usually includes meeting educational requirements, prior work experience or internship as a paralegal, and passing an examination.  After the paralegal has met these criteria, they may use a special designation or credential and call themselves a certified paralegal in accordance with the certifying body’s instructions.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The American Bar Association does not certify paralegals. Paralegals may not represent themselves as “ABA-certified paralegals,” because the ABA’s approval applies to the paralegal education program rather than to the individual paralegal. See the ABA’s position on this issue here:

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National Paralegal Certification Programs

Currently, all certification programs in the United States are voluntary. Of the certification programs currently available, the most widely known national certifications are those of NALA | The Paralegal Association (formerly the National Association of Legal Assistants); the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), and NALS – The Association of Legal Professionals (formerly the National Association of Legal Secretaries). The ABA recognizes the voluntary national certifications of NALA, NFPA, and NALS.

NALA | The Paralegal Association

The NALA certification exam was established in 1976 to offer a nationwide credential for all paralegals. This is the nation’s oldest paralegal certification program. The current 2018 exam format is 5 hours including an essay (judgment and analytical ability) section. Exams formats prior to 2018 were 7.5 or more hours to complete. The last time I checked with NALA, the first-time pass rate for this exam was 55%. You can find the current exam requirements here. The original designation earned by passing the exam was the “CLA” or the Certified Legal Assistant designation. Currently, NALA uses the “CP” or Certified Paralegal designation as the term “paralegal” becomes more popular than “legal assistant.” NALA also offers advanced paralegal certifications in various specialty areas of law and successful completion of an advanced paralegal certification course allows you to use the advanced certified paralegal or “ACP” credential.

To learn more about NALA certification, visit

NFPA | The National Federation of Paralegal Associations

The NFPA Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) exam was established in 1996 to test the competency level of experienced paralegals. The current exam format is 4 hours to answer 200 multiple choice questions. Upon successful completion of the exam, one earns the PACE Registered Paralegal (RP) credential. Additionally, The Paralegal Core Competency Exam (PCCE) was established by NFPA in 2011 for entry-level paralegals. The current exam format is 2.5 hours to answer 125 multiple choice questions. Upon successful completion one earns the CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) designation.

To learn more about NFPA certification, visit

NALS | The Association of Legal Professionals

NALS offers a Professional Paralegal (PP) exam and Specialty Certificate Program. The PP was established in 2004 and is a two-day exam. To learn more about NALS certification, visit

State Paralegal Certification Programs

As you likely know, The North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal Program offers an entry-level paralegal certification exam. After successful completion of a NCSB-approved education program and exam (no in-office experience required), a paralegal can use the credentials:

  • North Carolina Certified Paralegal
  • North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal
  • Paralegal Certified by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Paralegal Certification
  • NCCP

To learn more about paralegal certification through the North Carolina State Bar, visit

In addition to the North Carolina State Bar, the ABA recognizes the following state specific certifications of the:

Although California does not certify paralegals in general, California legislation (AB 1761) makes it unlawful for persons to identify themselves as paralegals unless they meet certain requirements. Paralegals must also complete continuing legal education every two years in order to lawfully perform services or identify as a paralegal.

Is Certification Right For You Or Your Firm?

The scope, duration and requirements for certification credentials vary with each organization.  Be sure to check with the organization offering the credential to determine the requirements. Some credentials are more widely recognized in certain geographical regions than others, so you’ll also want to be sure that you are obtaining a certification that will benefit your career or firm in your particular marketplace.

Further, if your paralegal obtains certification after they have already been employed with your firm, acknowledge it. This celebration can be simple – words of affirmation, a new title on business cards, acknowledgement on the firm website, etc. I’ve seen some firms preclude their paralegals from using post-nominal certifications after their names. While that is entirely up to the firm, this decision may reflect a lack of understanding regarding the value of paralegal certification. A tangible benefit may be the firm’s ability to justify an increase in a paralegal’s hourly rate. Additionally, some corporations require that a law firm use “certified paralegals” in order to be considered during their call for proposals.

Alicia Mitchell-Mercer, LPP, ACP, RP, NCCP, SCCP is a senior paralegal, legal project manager, and consultant in Charlotte, NC. She has a B.S. in Paralegal Studies and a M.S. in Project Management. She is a certified paralegal through the NC State Bar, SC Bar, NALA, and NFPA and a certified Legal Project Practitioner through the International Institute of Legal Project Management. Alicia is the Technology Committee Chair and Communications Co-chair of the North Carolina Bar Association, Paralegal Division; and volunteers with the NC Guardian ad Litem program. Email:; LinkedIn: