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To Certify or not to Certify: What Does it Take to Become a Paralegal?

Published on February 26, 2015 by Karen Newmeyer

A paralegal is defined by the American Bar Association (ABA) as, “a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Whereas practicing attorneys are required to become licensed in the state in which they practice, no such requirement is placed on paralegals in most states, including Utah. Many begin their paralegal career with on-the-job training. State bar associations determine licensing of legal professionals and several national paralegal associations offer voluntary certification exams, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants.

Should licensing be required for paralegals?

Those in favor of licensing requirements argue that it would ensure a minimum level of competency for those assisting practicing attorneys. Further, it would provide the public greater confidence, so that they feel they are receiving exceptional representation, even when their matter is being handled by a paralegal. The benefit to the paralegal would be greater recognition of their contribution to the legal profession, pay increases, and opportunities for advancement. It would also prevent unqualified individuals from calling themselves paralegals.

While some state offer a voluntary certification program, only California requires those calling themselves paralegals to meet specific ABA approved educational program requirements. Passing additional certification exams allow California paralegals more leeway in the functions they can perform without direct attorney supervision. Other states are considering moves in this direction.

The down-side of licensing is the potential increased cost of legal services to the public. Furthermore, a paralegal’s function is to assist the supervising attorney. As Renee Sova, Director of Alumni and Advanced Specialty Programs of the American Institute for Paralegal Studies says, “. . . the profession was created to assist attorneys, not replace them. . . . [A]ttorneys are already licensed and (because) paralegals work for attorneys, (there is no) need for a double layer of licensure.” Ultimately, the supervising attorney oversees the paralegal’s work.

The Paralegal Division of the Utah State Bar was created in 1996. It provides Continuing Legal Education (CLE) for its members and requires a combination of legal education and work experience to become a member. It does not require national certification nor does it confer any kind of certification. It requires that all paralegals work under the direct supervision of a state licensed attorney. The Utah State Bar does encourage national certification through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). To sit for this exam, the paralegal must complete a combination of education and work experience.

While Broadview University does not provide a direct path to certification through any of the national paralegal associations, it does fill a requirement to sit for one of the national certification exams by providing the requisite education if there is not sufficient work experience. But the question remains—should the states more closely regulate paralegals in the work place? While some believe state licensure is “over kill,” the general consensus is that voluntary national certification is always a good idea.

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