Certificate, certification (tomato, tomäto)—these two words are so similar that it’s no surprise they are often interchanged for one another. If you have found yourself confused about the distinction, you’re not alone and it’s not your fault. This has been an issue that has left enough would-be paralegals scratching their heads that even the American Bar Association has stepped in to try to clarify matters.
The fact is, it isn’t just a matter of people interchanging or misusing the terms. Even the most influential professional associations and certifying bodies can be a little inconsistent about what these two terms are meant to describe. But fear not, we’re here to help.
We can’t do anything about the fact that there will continue to be some inconsistency in how these terms are used, but what we can do is break it all down for you so that you are clear on the ABA’s position on the matter… so that you understand what each term is usually meant to describe… and so that you can immediately identify the difference between the two different types of programs no matter what term is being used.
Here’s the basic break down in simplest terms:
- Certificates are always education based and teach you the things you need to know to become a paralegal or gain specialized knowledge later in your career. When you earn a certificate you are considered “certificated.”
- Certification always involves demonstrating what you know by taking and passing an exam. When you earn certification you are considered “certified.”
Paralegal Certificates: Learn What You Need to Know
A paralegal certificate is an educational program that can put you on a fast track to a career as a paralegal or provide you with an opportunity to focus—or refocus—your career.
Paralegal certificate programs are educational programs offered through a college, university, or proprietary school.
If you want a course of education that’s specifically focused on the legal field and the paralegal profession, a paralegal certificate is for you. However, the type of paralegal certificate program you choose will largely depend on where you’re at in your career…
- Undergraduate Certificate – You’re just getting started and only have a high school diploma or GED.
- Post-Degree Certificate – You already have a degree in another field and want to change careers to become a paralegal.
- Graduate Certificate – Already have a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and want to specialize or advance OR have a bachelor’s degree in another field and want to become a paralegal with the option to transfer credits to a master’s degree later
All of these programs are available in a flexible format that offers self-paced courses in a web-based delivery model.
The Undergraduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies
Undergraduate certificates provide the quickest way to get from having no knowledge of the law to becoming a paralegal.
The undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies is for you if you have a high school diploma or GED and want a short course of study that will get you the knowledge and skills you need to enter the field for the first time as an entry-level paralegal.
Undergraduate certificates in paralegal studies can be found through four-year colleges, although the majority are available through proprietary schools and community colleges.
The Post-Degree Certificate in Paralegal Studies
Post-degree certificates in paralegal studies are designed as post-associate’s or post-bachelor’s programs. If you already hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in any major other than paralegal studies and are looking to completely switch gears and make the move to become a paralegal, post-degree certificates are right for you.
Post-degree programs acknowledge that you have already completed your general education courses so these programs only provide courses directly related to the legal field.
Post-bachelor’s certificate programs are considered different from graduate certificate programs, and here’s why: In most cases, post-bachelor’s certificates are offered through four-year schools that offer either a bachelor’s in paralegal studies, or the option to minor in paralegal studies. The certificate programs they offer simply mirror the paralegal courses in their bachelor’s program and leave out the general education courses you’ve already taken. Post-bachelor’s certificate programs are usually thought of as the final educational step you will be taking since the credits you earn usually cannot be transferred to a master’s degree program.
The Graduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies
Graduate certificate programs are the standard option if you’re already working in the legal field and want to advance in your current career and specialize. Less frequently, people with bachelor’s degrees in other fields will choose to earn a graduate certificate since it gives them the option to transfer the credits to a master’s degree in paralegal studies.
Students of graduate certificate programs often have the option of taking specialized courses to develop expertise in a particular area of law.
In addition to an undergraduate or graduate degree from an accredited college or university, many graduate certificate programs can be quite selective and require candidates to have the same qualifications they would need to enter a master’s program: no less than a 3.0 GPA; and submit a CV, professional letters of recommendation and, in some cases, passing scores on a standardized exam like the GRE or LSAT.
Graduate certificates are often chosen over a master’s degree in legal studies because they consist of as little as 18 credits that can be completed in just a few months.
Paralegal Certification: Demonstrate What You Know Through Examination
If you’re a graduate of a paralegal certificate or degree program, you may be ready to demonstrate your competence through examination and earn professional certification.
Paralegal certification almost always refers to a voluntary exam-based nationally-recognized credential offered through one of three certifying organizations:
- NALA: The Paralegal Association
- Certified Paralegal (CP)
- Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP)
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- CORE registered paralegal (CRP)
- Registered paralegal (RP)
- NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals
- Professional Paralegal (PP)
- NALS Specialty Certificate
All three certifying organizations offer two levels of certification: one for entry-level paralegals and one for established paralegals with several years of paralegal experience.
You’ll notice that NALS offers a specialty certificate. This represents the one major point of confusion in how a national certification organization uses the term, but here’s why it still makes sense: advanced secondary or specialty certifications are all education based. Rather than just involving an exam or exam-prep courses along with the exam, advanced certification programs involve taking courses in advanced or specialized areas of law, much like those found in a graduate certificate program through a university. So the rule still applies: certificate programs are always education based.
All certification options require candidates to meet specific education and/or experience requirements in order to be eligible to take the certification exam. The exam is the final step to earning certification, but continuing education and renewal is always a part of maintaining certification in good standing.
Paralegals that earn certification can then add the corresponding credential (CP, CRP, PP, etc.) after their name on business cards, email signatures, or anywhere else.
National certification offers the best option for paralegals that want to enjoy the freedom of mobility or who work for large regional firms or corporate legal departments in companies with a national or international presence.
Less frequently, the term certification is used to describe voluntary programs offered at the state level, either through the bar or through a professional association:
- The state bar associations in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio offer voluntary state certification.
- Arizona and California paralegals may choose to seek recognition as independent legal document preparers.
- In Washington state, paralegals can become Limited License Legal Technicians and even advise clients on certain matters in limited areas of law.
In all other states where voluntary certification is available, it is offered through the local paralegal professional associations and does not come with any additional practice privileges.
All state level certification and licensing options can be a strong credential within the state, but doesn’t carry quite as much weight outside of the state or surrounding region.