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.

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Here’s the basic break down in simplest terms:

  • Connector.

    Certificates

    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.”

  • Connector.

    Certification

    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 Certificate Programs: Q&A

How do I find a good paralegal certificate program?

A: While the quality of a paralegal certificate program can be rather subjective, it’s always good to look for a program that has been regionally accredited through one of the following accrediting agencies:

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • New England Association of Colleges and Schools
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges

The American Bar Association (ABA) also approves paralegal certificate programs, although they do not recognize online programs. While ABA approval signifies a program meets strict standards for its program content, there are many institutions that also have quality programs but did not choose to seek ABA approval. To date, just 22 percent of all paralegal programs in the U.S. are approved by the ABA.

Although accreditation should play a role in your decision, don’t forget to look into things that are important to you, such as student support services, the quality of the faculty, graduation rates, etc.

Can I land a job with an undergraduate paralegal certificate?

A: Yes, there are many employers who hire paralegals that have completed an undergraduate paralegal certificate. However, there are perhaps just as many employers who demand paralegals who have completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.

The ABA, NALA, the NFPA and other professional associations recommend a four-year degree in paralegal studies because it provides students with a solid general education foundation in the social sciences, math, English, and humanities.

Can I transfer my paralegal certificate courses to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies?

A: Unfortunately, most paralegal certificate courses (undergraduate, post-associate’s and post-bachelor’s) cannot be transferred to a degree program. If you think you may want to continue your education beyond an undergraduate or post-degree certificate, look to proprietary schools that offer associate’s and bachelor’s programs, as they are usually the most liberal when it comes to transferring credits.

Credits earned in a graduate certificate program, however, can usually be transferred towards a master’s degree.

How much does a paralegal certificate program cost?

A: An undergraduate paralegal certificate or post-associate’s or post-bachelor’s program through a proprietary school will cost you between $7,000-$13,000, while undergraduate certificate programs through community colleges typically cost between $3,000-$8,000.

Graduate certificate programs through state colleges or universities generally cost between $4,000-$6,000.

You may be able to secure a number of grants and loans that will make it easier to afford the cost of a paralegal program. Depending on the institution and your financial situation, you may be eligible for Federal Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, the Federal Work-Study Program, Federal Perkins Loans, and private loans, among others.

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.

State Certification

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.

Paralegal Certification Programs: Q&A

Who offers professional certification for paralegals?

A: Currently, NALA: The Paralegal Association, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), and NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals offer professional certification options, both at the basic and advanced levels.

A few states offer certification for paralegals working there, including Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio, which offer certification through the bar; and Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Delaware, which have professional associations that offer certification options.

If you live in a state with state certification, you may choose to earn state certification, national certification, both state and national certification, or neither state nor national certification. The choice is yours!

Is professional certification mandatory to practice?

A: No, the paralegal profession continues to be unregulated; therefore, whether at the state or national level, professional certification remains a voluntary endeavor. There is no legal requirement to be certified as a paralegal in any state if you are working under the general supervision of an attorney or other qualified legal professional.

Will professional certification increase my salary?

A: A couple of the certification agencies have conducted surveys that show that their certified members earn more on average than paralegals without certification, with some reporting that certified paralegals earn as much as $16,000 more per year.

Ultimately, though, it depends on the employer. There is no guarantee that certification will result in making more money. Some employers place more emphasis on professional designations and may offer higher starting salaries to the paralegals who hold them. Some paralegals find that holding a professional designation helps set them apart from other candidates and land jobs easier.

As you establish yourself in your career, your pay is more likely to be tied to the value you bring to the law firm or corporate legal department you work for, and advanced, specialized certifications that you earn by taking courses are going to make you more valuable as a specialist. Some employers even cover the cost of advanced certification.

Do I need experience to pursue professional certification?

A: Many paralegals pursue their primary professional certification immediately upon earning a paralegal degree.

However, you can pursue professional certification at any point in your career. Some paralegals find that gaining a few years of experience helps prepare them for these exams.

Further, advanced paralegal certifications are reserved for paralegals with several years of experience in the field.

Do I need a degree in paralegal studies to pursue professional certification?

A: No, not necessarily. You can qualify for primary certification through experience or a combination of experience and education in most cases. NALA, NALS, and the NFPA accept candidates who have earned degrees in fields other than paralegal studies and who have been working in the paralegal field for a number of years. There are also options for highly experienced paralegals who got their start years ago and don’t have any degree at all to qualify through experience alone.

However, it is most common to qualify through education since that provides the quickest path to being eligible to take the certification exam. All certification would require passing an exam as the final step.

Once certified, can I use a professional credential after my name?

A: Yes, NALA’s certified paralegals earn either the certified paralegal (CP) designation or the advanced certified paralegal (ACP) designation in a legal specialty.

The NFPA’s certified paralegals earn either the CORE registered paralegal (CRP) designation or the more advanced registered paralegal (RP) designation.

NALS certified paralegals use either the professional paralegal (PP) designation. After completing the NALS Specialty Certificate program, some choose to add the specialty area after the PP designation.

In all cases, the appropriate initials can be shown after your name on business cards or anywhere else. Example: Jane Doe, RP

Do I need to maintain professional certification?

A: Yes, NALS, NALA, and the NFPA all require that paralegals maintain their professional certification through continuing education. This includes taking continuing legal education (CLE) courses or participating in professional activities involved with the paralegal profession. Things like attending seminars and lectures, publishing articles and teaching courses would qualify as CLE.

NALA and NALS credentials must be renewed every 5 years, while the NFPA’s credentials must be renewed every 2 years.

Do I have to be member of the organization that offers the certification program?

A: No, it isn’t a requirement, but it is common and it does come with benefits. Many paralegals find that membership in a professional organization affords them the chance to attend professional events, network with colleagues, find new jobs, and take advantage of continuing education opportunities. Plus, NALA, NALS, and the NFPA all discount the cost of their professional certification programs for members.

How much does professional certification cost?

A: Certification through NALS is $150 for members and $200 for non-members. Certification through NALA is $250 for members and $272 for non-members. Certification through the NFPA is $215 for members and $250 for nonmembers.