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Certification is a voluntary process undertaken by two national organizations (NALA and NFPA) and four state organizations to recognize those individuals who have met specified qualifications set forth by those organizations. NALA has established the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) exam, which can be taken by anyone regardless of whether they have paralegal experience. NFPA has established the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE), which requires a minimum of two years of paralegal experience, a bachelor's degree, and completion of a paralegal program at an accredited school. NALA also offers a Certified Legal Assistant Specialist (CLAS) certification in one of the following areas: bankruptcy, civil litigation, corporate law, criminal law, intellectual property, probate, or real estate law. Only CLAs are qualified to sit for the CLAS exam. Some states, such as California, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, have state-specific certification exams.
For more information about the CLA exam, go to www.nalanet.org and click on "Certification." To find out more about the PACE exam, go to www.paralegals.org and click on "PACE."
Are paralegals encouraged to take the CLA or PACE exams in your area?
If so, what reasons are given for taking either of these exams?
When is it suggested you take them?
Does your state have a state-specific certification exam or is one being considered?
If your state has such a program, what are the specifics of that program?
While certification comes from a non-governmental organization, licensure comes from the government. At this point, paralegals are not subject to any kind of licensing, but the issue itself is very controversial. In 1986, an ABA Committee on Professionalism suggested limited licensing of paralegals to perform such specific functions as drafting simple wills, doing real estate closings, and handling certain kinds of tax matters. In 1995, the ABA established a Commission on Non-lawyer Practice, which conducted hearings around the country regarding the issue of non-lawyer practice and its effects on society and the legal system. In its final report, the Commission recommended the expansion of the paralegal role and suggested that each state decide for itself whether it wanted to adopt limited licensing for paralegals.
In assessing the wisdom of licensing paralegals, the states have had to consider the serious problem of the unavailability of legal representation for the poor and many of the middle class. Many people cannot afford to hire an attorney even to handle relatively straightforward matters. These cases are not economical for attorneys to handle and can be easily handled by paralegals. On the other hand, serious ramifications can result from paralegals providing inadequate legal services. Another reason some question the wisdom of licensing paralegals is that consumers may find it difficult to assess when it is appropriate for a paralegal rather than an attorney to do the work. Furthermore, the cost of establishing a licensing scheme intricate enough to address such concerns may outweigh any advantages gained by creating licensed paralegals. Several states have considered limited licensing proposals, but none have adopted them to date.
NALA and NFPA have taken opposing positions in reference to licensing. While the NFPA has drafted a Model Act for Paralegal Licensure and has proposed the creation of a State Board of Paralegal Practice to regulate paralegal practice, NALA has opposed attempts to license independent paralegals. NALA is concerned that the licensing of independent paralegals could lead to licensing of traditional paralegals and that such licensure could lead to direct confrontation with attorneys.
Even those who agree that licensing is commendable question the nature of the standards that should be set. For example, what kind of degree, if any, should be required? What kind of accreditation should be required of the educational institution granting the degree? How much specialized education should be required? Some differences exist in regard to what agency or institution should be responsible for administering paralegal licensure. Should it fall within the purview of the courts or should an independent licensing agency be established? What kind of licensing test should be used? Who should develop it? Who should grade it? These administrative issues further complicate the licensing issue.
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