Tips to take and pass the two most popular paralegal certification exams
Professional certification lends credibility to any profession, and the paralegal profession is no exception. Although paralegal certification is voluntary, an exam is often part of the certification process. Nationally, Nals … the association for legal professionals has offered various exams in the legal field since 1960, adding one specifically for paralegals, the Professional Paralegal exam, in 2004. On a local level, several states have their own paralegal certification exams, including California, Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, North Carolina and Florida.
According to the Legal Assistant Today 2006 Salary Survey, the two most widely taken exams are also the two oldest: the National Association of Legal Assistants’ Certified Legal Assistant exam, created in 1976, and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam, created in 1994. What are these exams all about and how can you prepare for them? In this article, two veteran paralegals give you all the background information, requirements and study tips you need to hit the books and get started on your next professional journey.
THE CLA EXAM:
30 YEARS AND STILL GOING STRONG
The “granddaddy” of voluntary certification examinations for paralegals is the CLA program offered by NALA. The examination has recently added a second designation, Certified Paralegal, for those who prefer the paralegal title. As of June 1, 2005, 12,883 paralegals had earned the CLA/CP designation. There is a 45 percent to 50 percent pass rate.
Design of the Examination
To earn the CLA/CP designation, paralegals must take a comprehensive two-day examination on federal law and procedure, consisting of the following five sections:
Communications, which covers grammar, composition, writing, vocabulary, professional and social contacts with clients, attorneys and co-workers, and skills for interviewing clients and witnesses.
Ethics, which covers confidentiality, unauthorized practice of law, conflict of interest, advertising, identifying oneself as a nonlawyer to the public, professional integrity, attorney codes and discipline.
Legal Research, which covers sources of law, primary and secondary authority, citing, Shepardizing, citation rules and research problems.
Judgment and Analytical Ability, which covers analyzing facts and evidence, reading comprehension, data interpretation and logical reasoning. Examinees also must write a research memo.
Substantive Law, which is a general section that covers the American court system, including structure and jurisdiction, branches of government, sources of law, the appellate process, and sources and classifications of law.
Examinees then are tested on four subsections of their choice from the following areas of law: administrative, bankruptcy, business organization, civil litigation, contracts, criminal law and procedure, estate planning and probate, family law or real estate.
To be eligible to take the CLA/CP examination, a legal assistant must meet one of the following requirements:
Graduate from an American Bar Association-approved legal assistant program, associate degree program or a post-baccalaureate certificate program in legal assistant studies; or graduate from a bachelor’s degree program in legal assistant studies or from a legal assistant program that consists of a minimum of 60 semester hours, of which at least 15 semester hours are substantive legal courses.
Earn a bachelor’s degree in any field, plus have one year of experience as a legal assistant. Successful completion of at least 15 semester hours of substantive legal assistant courses will be considered equivalent to one year of experience as a legal assistant.
Obtain a high school diploma or equivalent plus seven years of experience as a legal assistant under the supervision of a member of the bar, plus evidence of a minimum of 20 hours of continuing legal education credit to have been completed within a two-year period prior to the examination date.
The CLA/CP examination is offered in locations around the country three times a year, in March or April, July and December.
NALA has a two-day testing schedule, always starting on Friday, and you should know it ahead of time so you can be mentally prepared. On Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. you will be tested on communications. After a 90-minute lunch break, the judgment and analytical ability portion of the test will be given from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. That evening you will have a chance to review for Saturday’s sections: ethics from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and legal research from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. After a lunch break on Saturday, you will sit for the final section, substantive law, from 1:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
One of the most difficult sections is the judgment and analytical ability portion, which requires you to write (not type) a research memo.
Studying for the Examination
There are many ways to study for the CLA/CP examination. If you like to study independently, NALA has published three guides through Thomson Delmar Learning/West Legal Studies to help paralegals prepare for the examination. The first, the CLA Review Manual, is practically a must-read if you want to pass the examination. Each chapter covers a different section of the examination with sample questions and practice tests.
The second guide, the NALA Manual for Paralegals and Legal Assistants, covers general skills on which you will be tested during the examination, including the American legal system, research, ethics, judgment and analytical ability, interview techniques and other topics such as pretrial litigation skills, discovery and assisting at trial.
The guide book is the CLA Mock Examination and Study Guide, which consists of a two and a half hour mock examination. This guide is useful to help you find out where your strengths lie in the four substantive legal areas so you can sign up for those you are best in. The books can be ordered from the NALA Web site at www.nala.org. NALA also offers online self-study programs for eight different test areas. These are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can be taken at your own pace. The programs are available through NALA Campus (www.nalacampus.com).
If you would rather study with others, many state and local paralegal associations offer review programs for their members, or you also can form your own study group. Study groups usually meet once a week for three to four months before the examination, and they are a great way to keep up your enthusiasm and commitment.
Twice a year, NALA provides examination review programs. In October, the CLA Short Course is offered at a central location. (The October 2006 Short Course was taught in Denver.) The Short Course is a two and a half day program focusing on topics that you will be tested on during the examination. Every July at the NALA annual conference, the Essential Skills program is offered. The July 2007 Essential Skills program will be offered in New Orleans from July 11 to July 14.
NALA also offers live Web-based presentations of its Short Course programs through NALA Campus Live. The programs are interactive and participants are able to ask the instructors questions and discuss matters with other students. A telephone and a computer with high-speed Internet access are required. You can find more information at www.nalacampus.com.
CLE After the Exam
Once you have earned your CLA or CP designation, congratulations, but the work doesn’t stop here. To maintain your certification, you are required to complete 50 hours of CLE every five years. This must include at least five hours of legal ethics.
There are many ways to earn these hours, including attending conferences, seminars and workshops, taking NALA Campus Live courses, researching and writing articles in legal publications, and teaching or passing a NALA Advanced Specialty course.
Taking the Plunge
Studying for the CLA/CP examination requires a large time commitment, and some expense for the study materials, the examination fee and travel to the examination site and lodging. Will all this time and effort be worth it? The results are mixed on compensation.
NALA conducts a National Utilization and Compensation Study biannually. The results of the 2004 survey showed that average compensation for a non-CLA was $45,651, while the average compensation for a CLA was $47,331. The figures reported in Legal Assistant Today’s 14th Annual Salary Survey (see “Taking Off,” March/April 2006 LAT) show an average salary of $51,078 for all paralegals as compared to an average salary of $45,108 for CLAs.
For some, the CLA designation has translated into additional compensation, but money alone is not the major draw for a lot of CLAs. Many report feelings of personal satisfaction and accomplishment after successful completion of the examination. Others find it provides a tremendous boost to their self-esteem and added prestige at their jobs.
PACE REGISTERED PARALEGAL:
RECOGNIZING EXCELLENCE IN THE PARALEGAL PROFESSION
By Ann Price, RP
A relative newcomer, PACE was created when delegates from the member associations of NFPA voted to develop a voluntary, advanced-level competency exam. PACE was designed to establish a national standard of paralegal excellence for experienced paralegals and to test critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
The resulting exam is neither state- nor practice-specific. Today, 11 years after its inception, there are more than 500 PACE Registered Paralegals in the United States. The most recent scoring run indicates a 63 percent pass rate.
PACE was created to provide a means for the general public and the legal community to evaluate paralegal expertise. If employers or clients see the designation “RP” after a paralegal’s name, they know that the paralegal has risen to a national standard of excellence, competence and experience, and passed a demanding national certification examination that tests basic legal principles and ethics and their practical application.
PACE is not an entry-level certification exam. It’s an exam of advanced competency with strict eligibility guidelines. Candidates must submit applications, supported by college transcripts and affidavits attesting to the nature and duration of substantive paralegal work experience. Candidates also must meet character requirements. An independent testing agency reviews applications to ensure eligibility.
To be eligible to take PACE, a candidate must have one of the following:
a bachelor’s degree in any area of study (institutionally accredited or ABA approved) and three years of substantive paralegal experience;
a bachelor’s degree (institutionally accredited or ABA approved) plus completion of a paralegal program (the paralegal program can be included in the bachelor’s degree if applicable) and two years of substantive paralegal experience;
an associate’s degree in paralegal studies (institutionally accredited or ABA approved) and six years of substantive paralegal experience; or
no degree and four years of substantive paralegal experience that must have been completed on or before Dec. 31, 2000 (grandfather clause).
PACE candidates don’t need to travel long distances or wait several months to take the exam. Approved candidates can schedule the location, date and time for their exam at their convenience, at any one of the more than 200 Prometric (formerly Thomsen Prometric and Sylvan Learning Centers) testing facilities. The convenience of the exam’s availability is one factor distinguishing it from other certification exams.
For NFPA members, the exam costs $225 plus a $25 application fee. For non-NFPA members, the exam costs $250 plus a $75 application fee.
Most of the exam fee covers the costs to administer the exam. NFPA procedures require that half of any profits are directed to the Foundation for the Advancement of the Paralegal Profession, an independent nonprofit foundation created to promote the paralegal profession. Although created by NFPA, the Foundation is separate from NFPA with its own independent board of directors.
PACE consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. Candidates have up to four hours to complete the exam, although most finish within two hours. PACE is computer based and taken under controlled testing conditions at a Prometric testing facility. Prometric centers are located in most major cities in the United States. They are accessible, and many large cities have multiple locations. Candidates are not allowed to take any personal items into the testing room, and examinations are videotaped to ensure there isn’t any wrongdoing. Preliminary test results are provided within minutes of completing the exam, although they will not be official until the test scores are validated in June and December of each year. The validation process includes a detailed review to analyze trends and identify potentially troublesome questions. One must know legal principles and have experience to succeed on PACE.
Areas that are tested throughout the exam include:
administration of client legal matters;
development of client legal matters;
factual and legal research;
factual and legal writing;
A paralegal meeting the minimum criteria for the exam should be able to use logical thought processes, elimination of incorrect answers and their expertise in the basic legal principles to correctly answer the test questions.
NFPA has developed many study tools to assist candidates preparing for the exam. Even an experienced candidate should thoroughly review the PACE Study Manual published by NFPA (available at www.paralegals.org) prior to taking the exam. Each chapter includes sample test questions with detailed explanations of the logical process to deduce the correct response.
Examinees also should review other sources, including paralegal textbooks, seminar materials, flash cards and bar charts for law students, and paralegal journals such as The National Paralegal Reporter and Legal Assistant Today. In addition, NFPA offers a 50-question online practice exam that simulates test conditions.
NFPA encourages candidates to participate in a study group if possible. Study groups are organized at the local level, although NFPA can assist by providing sample guidelines, a sample syllabus and other information to help the study groups prepare for the exam. Study groups can be as formal or informal as the participants want. NFPA recommends that study groups meet at least once a week and follow the suggested syllabus over a seven- to eight-week period, although they can meet more often or less often. The group can be taught by members taking turns on the various study areas, or the group leader can solicit speakers from the legal community.
NFPA also encourages local member associations to designate an individual as a PACE Ambassador. The local PACE Ambassador can be an invaluable resource in linking candidates to RPs in their local areas, mentoring candidates, offering review courses and facilitating study groups. Many local PACE Ambassadors have developed their own study tools. For example, the National Capital Area Paralegal Association in Washington, D.C., has compiled notebooks of additional study materials, notes from prior study groups, articles from legal publications and more to help candidates prepare for the exam. Also, NCAPA has developed flash cards for legal terminology. Each association maintains its own resource materials in addition to the Study Manual. If you are not a member of a local paralegal association and would like to contact a PACE Ambassador in your area, you can contact NFPA headquarters at firstname.lastname@example.org or (425) 967-0045.
Study groups don’t work for all paralegals. Many find it impossible to study any other way but individually. Recognizing that study groups are not an option for many paralegals, NFPA partnered with the American Institute for Paralegal Studies to offer a seven-week, online study course for PACE. This review course includes mentoring, discussions, homework assignments and online lectures, and ultimately provides a structured form of study. It also encourages a disciplined approach to study that many paralegals find difficult to maintain if they study on their own. The online course is available to anyone with an Internet connection and can be accessed any time. Many RPs credit the course for their success on the exam. The review course is offered several times a year, and more information is available at www.paralegals.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=125.
After the Exam
RPs must meet CLE requirements, which include ethics training, to maintain their certification. RPs must renew their certification every two years and provide evidence of at least 12 hours of CLE (approved by the CLE coordinator on a case-by-case basis unless the CLE credits were obtained from a previously approved provider, e.g., bar associations, colleges and universities, etc.). At least one hour of CLE must be in ethics.
Making the Commitment
The single most important resource a PACE candidate can take into the test facility is the desire to become an RP. Making the commitment to take PACE is not something to be taken lightly or forced on anyone. The exam is voluntary, and candidates must be in the proper frame of mind to succeed. They must be confident of their skills and knowledge, but shouldn’t approach the exam in an overconfident manner either.
Why should a paralegal take PACE? The reasons are as varied as the 500 plus RPs who have passed the exam to date, but they generally fall into the following categories:
Career paralegals want to validate their expertise by taking a nationally recognized certification exam;
In the absence of regulation, or with regulation on the horizon, paralegals want to establish their own identifiable standards of professional excellence;
National certification provides a sense of professional accomplishment;
Certified paralegals can gain recognition and respect from peers;
Certified paralegals can enhance their marketability and stand apart from the rest of the uncertified paralegal workforce; and
Some employers offer higher salary levels or bonuses for certification.
There are many reasons why a paralegal might not want to take PACE, and indeed it’s not an exam for everyone. Many candidates don’t meet the education and experience criteria, or another national certification exam might be better suited to their background. Some paralegals might worry about how to fit studying for the exam into their schedule or be unsure of how exactly to study for the exam. And some paralegals resist taking the exam simply because of the fear of failure. No one, especially an experienced paralegal, likes to face the possibility of not passing a national competency exam. If you are a paralegal who is eligible for the exam but have some of these concerns, contact me or any future vice president and director of PACE at VPDP@paralegals.org. We might be able to help you work around some of these obstacles.
Paralegals who face their fears and pass the exam gain a huge sense of professional pride and accomplishment. They are authorized to use the trademarked phrase “PACE Registered
Paralegal” or “RP.” Some RPs enjoy increased pay, promotions or new job opportunities. Some find themselves in positions of additional responsibility within their place of employment and take on leadership roles within the paralegal community. At a minimum, many new RPs note the increased peer recognition that comes almost instantly with the announcement of their certification.
One of the most important reasons to become an RP is that you want to become certified. Having a positive attitude is as critical to passing this exam as work experience and study. There are many resources to help prepare for the exam. With proper preparation and the right motivation, it’s possible to pass PACE. For more information about PACE, please visit the NFPA Web site at www.paralegals.org and click on “PACE/RP.”
By Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS
When it comes to test time, if possible, find a place to stay near the exam site the night before the exam so you don’t have to rush in on the morning of the test. Allow yourself the luxury of being able to do some last minute review the night before without staying up late.
Here are some additional recommendations:
Take vacation time the week before the test to prepare.
Transcribe handwritten notes from study group classes and create flash cards for quick and easy review.
Study a little at a time and don’t focus on the whole exam.
Be prepared physically as well as mentally by getting plenty of sleep before the exam and eating well.
Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS, is a freelance paralegal in the San Luis Obispo, Calif., area. She is the co-author of “Hot Docs and Smoking Guns: Managing Document Production and Document Organization” (Clark, Boardman, Callaghan, 1994) and “The Successful Paralegal Job Search Guide” (West, 2000). Hunt taught legal writing and ethics for the paralegal studies program at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and is a past president of the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations. She is working on a new book for Delmar Publishing on evidence management for paralegals, due out in July 2007.
Ann W. Price, RP, is the vice president and director of PACE and serves on the board of directors for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. She is employed as a litigation case manager in the Washington, D.C., office of Patton Boggs. Prior to election to the national board, Price served as the assistant coordinator for PACE Ambassadors for three years and was the National Capital Area Paralegal Association’s PACE Ambassador for six years. She is a member of the International Paralegal Management Association, serving on the IPMA Task Force on Paralegal Utilization. Price received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Old Dominion University inNorfolk, Va., and her paralegal certificate from Merritt College in Oakland, Calif.