Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What makes you different? A look at professional development, education, and credentials. (Part 1 of 2)

As RPA Education Chair, NALA Professional Development Committee (PDC) Chair, and a NALA Advanced Certified Paralegal® (ACP®), I think about education and credentials a lot.  A good philosophy for professional development is to do something that will help you personally and professionally, and that will help distinguish you from your peers.  Maybe this is leadership development, continuing education, a degree, or a certification.  Something I see in every aspect of my professional life is confusion about certificates versus certification (Part 1), and regulation versus registration (Part 2).  More importantly, why does a paralegal need any of it?

Something important to remember is that no formal training or education is consistently required in Virginia or nationally. Many “real” paralegals don’t pursue any additional professional development.

Paralegal education is generally voluntary.  Many, but not all, employers require or prefer applicants to have a degree or certificate in any field, and some specifically look for degrees or certificates in paralegal studies.  The American Bar Association evaluates and approves paralegal programs or schools that meet very specific requirements.  Some employers require that the paralegal studies degree or certificate be received from an ABA-approved school.  Only the hiring employer can tell you if they prefer an ABA-approved program.  When you go to a college and take classes in paralegal studies and graduate, you receive a certificate or associates, bachelors or masters degree.  A certificate program is typically shorter in duration than a degree program.  You can say you are “certificated” only if you completed a certificate program: you have passed all the requirements for the certificate program at the school you attended.  Additionally, there is a new certificate program for Legal Project Management, offered by the LPM Institute.  This LPM certificate program is a specialization rather than a paralegal certificate program.  There may be other specialization certificates offered.

Paralegal certification is a voluntary process, separate from education although there are education programs that incorporate taking a certification exam.  Many successful, knowledgeable paralegals never choose to become certified.  It is becoming more common for employers to prefer, and sometimes require, applicants to have passed a certification.  As a NALA affiliate, RPA focuses on the NALA Certified Paralegal® exam, although there are other certifications available.  NALA’s mission is to lead the paralegal profession by providing a voluntary certification program, continuing legal education, and professional development programs for all paralegals.  NALA reminds us that professional certification is a process respected by both employers and others within a field.  According to the American Society of Association Executives, professional certification is a voluntary process by which a nongovernmental entity grants a time-limited recognition to an individual after verifying that the individual has met predetermined, standardized criteria. (Rops, Mickie S., CAE, Understanding the Language of Credentialing, ASAE, May 2002.)  Common certifications include Certified Public Accountants (CPA), Certified Financial Advisers (CFA), and Project Management Professionals (PMP), among others.  For paralegals, once they meet exam prerequisites (which can be found on NALA’s website, here, and include significant education, experience, or a combination of both), they can apply to take the CP exam.  Not everyone will be successful: the exam is challenging!  People who have taken both the CP exam and their state bar exam to become lawyers have said that the CP exam was as hard as the bar exam.  NALA’s Certifying Board conducts job analysis studies every six years to determine the areas on which the CP exam should focus (the exam specifications).  The CP exam was updated most recently with the September 2013 exam.  In May 2014, the CP exam received accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  The CP exam is the only NCCA-accredited exam in the country.  Only paralegals who have passed the CP or other paralegal certification exam may use the appropriate credentials and say that they are “certified.”  Advanced Paralegal Certification is available for CPs interested in specializing.  These credentials are valid nationally and tell employers that the holder met rigorous standardized evaluation criteria.  Passing the CP exam was one of the hardest but most rewarding achievements of my life.

Come back for Part 2 on registration and regulation.   

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