Of the more than 1,000 paralegal programs in the United States, about 450 are members of the American Association for Paralegal Education. The AAfPE is an organization of paralegal educators and their institutions dedicated to improving the quality of paralegal education.
The AAfPE has created standards for paralegal education to ensure that every paralegal student acquires the necessary substantive knowledge and professional skill to be a successful, contributing member of the legal services team. The AAfPE does not approve or disapprove of the education programs of its members, but it serves as a resource for those institutions interested in implementing and maintaining high standards of paralegal education. The AAfPE maintains a Web site listing its affiliates and providing hints and tips for selecting a paralegal education program. While membership in the AAfPE is voluntary, its affiliate institutions are members because of their interest in providing the paralegal student with the best paralegal education possible.
Both the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offer competency certifications to their members. These certifications are responses to the wide variety of paralegal education programs. Competency certification is seen as a means of ensuring that practicing paralegals possess minimum levels of substantive legal knowledge and professional skills.
The NALA examination is the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) exam. The NALA allows several paths to qualify for the CLA exam, including completion of a variety of paralegal education programs, completion of a bachelor's degree in any field plus one year of working experience, or — if the candidate has no formal paralegal education — a minimum of seven years of working experience and twenty hours of continuing legal education credits. The specific requirements for qualification can be found on the NALA Web site.
The CLA exam is a two-day examination. The topics cover a variety of professional skills, including interviewing techniques, communications, analytical ability, and others. The exam also tests candidates on their substantive legal knowledge in the areas of bankruptcy law, family law, criminal law, criminal procedure, probate, and real estate law. The NALA claims that paralegals who obtain the CLA designation receive higher pay than other paralegals.
Paralegal certification is not required for all paralegal positions. Some employers insist that all qualified paralegals be certified; others make no distinction between certified and noncertified paralegals. Check the employment requirements in your job market.
The NFPA offers a competing certification: the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE). The PACE exam is actually a part the NFPA's support of universal paralegal licensure. The NFPA believes the PACE exam can serve as a part of a plan to regulate paralegal practitioners. As a result, the qualifications for the PACE exam are quite stringent. Candidates for the PACE exam must have a bachelor's degree and completion of an accredited paralegal education program (separately or as a part of the bachelor's degree), and at least two years of work experience. Some paralegals who did not meet these qualifications were allowed to take the PACE exam under a global grandfathering exemption that ended on December 31, 2000.
The PACE exam is a tiered exam. Participants must pass the first tier, which tests critical thinking, general legal knowledge, ethics, and problem solving, before taking the tier two test. The second-tier test addresses substantive legal knowledge in a variety of practice areas.