A paralegal or legal assistant is a person with legal training who works for an attorney or law firm. While a paralegal will assist in legal research and prepare legal documents, he is not allowed to participate in a courtroom or charge for legal services. There are many ways to become a certified paralegal in the United States. In general, most certified paralegals complete a two- or four-year college curriculum approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) and also pass a certification exam.
Several post-secondary education programs qualify a person to sit for the exam to become a certified paralegal. One popular route is to receive an accredited two-year or four-year degree in paralegal studies. Other students choose to pursue a certificate program in paralegal studies after completing another type of college degree. A final option is to complete a 60-hour paralegal program that does not confer a degree. It is important to verify whether a program has been approved by the ABA before submitting an application.
A person also may sit for the exam if he has completed a bachelor’s degree in any discipline and has at least one year of legal experience. Working as a paralegal for seven years along with having a high school diploma and 20 hours of continuing legal education credits also will qualify a person to take the exam. Documentation of education and work history is required to become a certified paralegal.
The certification exam is administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and is offered three times a year. As of 2011, the exam fee is $250 for NALA members and $275 for non-members. The exam can be retaken within a two-year window for $60 per section. After the two-year window has expired, the examinee must resubmit an application.
The exam to become a certified paralegal is administered over two days. An applicant must score at least 70 percent on each of five sections. These sections are legal research, ethics, judgment and analytical ability, communications, and substantive law.
After passing the exam, certified paralegals must complete at least 50 hours of continuing legal education (CLE) credits every five years. These credits can be obtained through legal coursework — whether online or in a classroom — or by attending various seminars and conferences that offer learning opportunities. Before signing up for any such programs, though, one hoping to earn CLE credits from a particular course or conference should confirm that any credits earned will be accepted by NALA. Proof of CLE credit must be submitted to NALA in a timely fashion to remain certified.