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Physicians have the M.D. designation to put after their name. Doctoral degree holders might add the initials Ph.D. And paralegals also can earn initials that signal they’ve had specialized training and education. Two organizations offer two certifications — a C.L.A. (certified legal assistant) or R.P. (registered paralegal) — for legal assistants nationwide who meet their standards and pass their tests. In Texas, paralegals also can take state tests that certify them in six specialty areas. Paralegals, headhunters and educators say certifications demonstrate ability and can boost the career of a legal assistant. Celia Gerchario, a paralegal recruiter in the Dallas office of Legal Network, a legal staffing service, says certifications show a level of expertise desired by law firms, especially the big ones. “It shows you’re career-minded and interested in the profession,” she says. Michelle Boerder, a legal assistant at Hughes & Luce in Dallas, says certification is a way to establish the advanced skills and level of competency of a paralegal. Attorneys must graduate from law school and pass a bar exam to practice, but there’s no formal set of requirements for legal assistants, she says. In Texas, the only requirement to be a paralegal is to work under the supervision of an attorney. No formal training or licensing is required. Boerder, a C.L.A. who also is board certified in Texas in civil law, says a certification can help lawyers who work in a specialized area hire a paralegal who has the necessary skills. “The certification helps lawyers by giving them a barometer of a paralegal’s skills,” says Boerder, who serves on the standards committee of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, which developed the R.P. exam. “It serves the attorney and ultimately serves the clients.” Board certification of legal assistants in Texas was first offered in 1994. It was set up under the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, which also certifies lawyers. As of this summer, 281 legal assistants in Texas have passed the four-hour test that certifies them in one of six areas — civil trial, family, personal-injury trial, criminal, estate planning/probate and real estate — according to TBLS executive director Gary McNeil. Results from this year’s exam, given in October, were not available by press time. The specialization certifications are valuable because they’re tailored to the legal needs in Texas, McNeil says. “You’ve got to know your stuff to pass the exam,” he says. On the national level, the two certification tests primarily cover federal law. One test is administered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), a group based in Tulsa, Okla. The two-day exam leads to a C.L.A. designation. Paralegals who earn the C.L.A. credential can then seek advanced certification in a specialty area by taking a four-hour exam. The exams are available in bankruptcy, civil litigation, corporations/business law, criminal law and procedure, intellectual property, estate planning and probate, and real estate. There are 10,541 C.L.A.s and 895 certified legal assistant specialists in the United States, according to NALA. In Texas, there are 2,184 C.L.A.s. The group first offered the certification in 1976. Twenty years later, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), a Kansas City, Mo.-based group, began offering the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) that leads to the R.P. designation. The four-hour test covers administration of client legal matters, development of client legal matters, factual and legal research, factual and legal writing, and office administration. About 300 people nationwide have become registered paralegals. EDUCATION AND EXPERIENCE Officials with the two national organizations are enthusiastic about the benefits of becoming certified. NALA officials contend that the C.L.A. designation has a definite impact on a paralegal’s career, leading to increases in salary, job responsibility, respect and credibility with clients. “It helps in competition for jobs,” Marge Dover, NALA’s executive director, says. She also says C.L.A.s earn higher salaries on average. A 1997 survey conducted by the group says that while the average annual salary of a legal assistant was $33,018, a paralegal with the C.L.A. credential earned $34,688. The study acknowledges that other factors, including geographic location, experience and education, affect salaries. However, it says the salary difference is statistically significant because four previous studies by the group show a pattern of higher pay for C.L.A.s. Diane Soroko, PACE coordinator for NFPA and an immigration consultant at Long, Aldridge and Norman in Atlanta, says employers place more emphasis on education and experience, but also take certification into account. Being certified as a paralegal could distinguish a job candidate in a competitive situation, she says. Her group’s exam, which leads to the R.P. designation, tests critical thinking, an important skill for a paralegal, Soroko says. “This is for advanced people, not for beginners,” she says. “It asks people to apply knowledge, rather than just repeat it.” Stephanie Hawkes, a senior paralegal at Nissan North America Inc. in Irving, Texas, took and passed the NFPA’s exam to become a registered paralegal. “You have to have significant experience to take it, and I liked that,” says Hawkes, director at large with the Dallas Area Paralegal Association and special activities chairwoman of the Metroplex Association of Corporate Paralegals. Holly Coe, president of the Paralegal Source, a recruiting firm in Austin, Texas, says most employers want their legal assistants to have training in paralegal studies but are less demanding about certification. Most view certification as a bonus rather than a requirement, she says. However, that bonus can translate into a paycheck boost, Coe says. Many motivated paralegals get the C.L.A. designation and take the state boards, she says. “There’s a lot of credibility attached to those [certifications],” she says. Marcia Rogers, operations manager for the Fort Worth office of Legal Network, says paralegals who pass a state certification test and have C.L.A. after their name have an advantage in the job market. “That has a lot of bang for the buck,” she says. “They can obviously get a higher wage.” START EARLY But some in the legal field, while supportive of the national certifications, aren’t convinced they make a difference in landing a job. About a half-dozen legal assistants and educators told us that while paralegals and headhunters are familiar with those certifications, many law firms know little about them. The Texas certification, for legal assistants who specialize in certain areas of the law, is better known and carries more influence in the state, they say. However, these legal assistants and educators also say that any certification is a sign of ability and could be handy if the state decides to make it a requirement to work as a paralegal in the future. So far, there’s been no legislation introduced in Texas to make certification a requirement. “I encourage students to take any certification they can get and right out of school when it’s fresh,” says Lee Drummond, director of the Southeastern Paralegal Institute in Dallas. “I do think it benefits students and maybe one day it will be required. It may not make a difference to firms now, but as time marches on, it may.” Preparation for a certification test can begin in school. Two educators whose schools offer C.L.A. review courses for working paralegals and students say the certification can be a boost. Andree Rosen, an attorney and director of the Legal Assistance Program at Midland College in Midland, Texas, says she encourages her students to become certified. She adds that the credential probably is more valuable to legal assistants in bigger cities. “If they’re moving on to Dallas County or Harris County, they should have it,” Rosen says. “In Midland or Odessa, it’s not as essential.” Bob Mauk, director of education at Southwestern Professional Institute in Houston, says certification shows employers that a paralegal has attained a certain level of education and skills. “It gives the students a credential,” Mauk says. “We promote the C.L.A. here to our students because it’s showing professionalism. It shows they’re willing to put time and energy into the profession.” CERTIFIED LEGAL ASSISTANT EXAM The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), based in Tulsa, Okla., administers the Certified Legal Assistant Examination, which takes two days and covers federal law and procedure. Paralegals who pass the exam can use the designation “C.L.A.” after their name. To be eligible to take the test, a legal assistant must meet one of the following requirements: 1. Graduation from a legal assistant program that is: � Approved by the American Bar Association; � An associate degree program; � A post-baccalaureate certificate program in legal assistant studies; � A bachelor’s degree program in legal assistant studies; or � A legal assistant program that consists of a minimum of 60 semester hours (900 clock hours or 225 quarter hours) of which at least 15 semester hours (225 clock hours or 22.5 quarter hours) are substantive legal courses. 2. A bachelor’s degree in any field, plus one year of experience as a legal assistant. Successful completion of at least 15 semester hours (or 22.5 quarter hours or 225 clock hours) of substantive legal courses will be considered equivalent to one year’s experience as a legal assistant. 3. A high school diploma or equivalent, plus seven years’ 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 major subject areas of the exam are communications, ethics, legal research, human relations and interviewing techniques, judgment and analytical ability, and legal terminology. A section on substantive law consists of five mini-exams covering the American legal system and four areas selected by the test-taker. Those areas are administrative law, bankruptcy, business organizations/corporations, contracts, family law, criminal law and procedure, litigation, probate and estate planning and real estate. Paralegals who earn the C.L.A. credential can seek advanced certification in a specialty area by passing a four-hour exam. The exams are available in bankruptcy, civil litigation, corporations/business law, criminal law and procedure, intellectual property, estate planning and probate, and real estate. Tests are offered three times a year at schools, universities and community colleges that have agreed to be testing centers. In cities where there is no testing center, NALA will establish one if there is a minimum of 10 legal assistants signed up. The fee for the C.L.A. examination is $225 for NALA members and $250 for nonmembers. Retake fees are $50 per section. C.L.A. specialty examination fees are $100 for NALA members and $125 for non-members. The C.L.A. credential is awarded for five years. To maintain it, legal assistants must take a minimum of 50 hours of continuing legal education programs or individual study programs. Credit also is given for successful completion of a state certification test, completion of a C.L.A. specialty exam or teaching in a legal assistant program. Source: National Association of Legal Assistants PARALEGAL ADVANCED COMPETENCY EXAM The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, a Kansas City, Mo.-based group, offers the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE). Those who pass the four-hour exam can use the designation “R.P.,” for registered paralegal. The requirements to take the PACE include work experience and education. When the test was developed in the mid-1990s, the NFPA included a grandparenting period that allows paralegals to substitute work experience for education. The requirements to take the test are: � A minimum of four years’ experience as a paralegal by Dec. 31, 2000; or � A bachelor’s degree, completion of a paralegal program within an institutionally accredited school (which may be embodied in the bachelor’s degree) and a minimum of two years’ experience as a paralegal. The exam covers administration of client legal matters, development of client legal matters, factual and legal research, factual and legal writing and office administration. It is a four-hour, computer-generated test and is offered at more than 200 Sylvan Technology Centers around the nation. Applicants can schedule the date and time to take the test on any day except Sundays or holidays. The test fee is $225. To maintain the R.P. credential, paralegals must take 12 hours of continuing legal or specialty education every two years, with at least one hour in legal ethics. Source: National Federation of Paralegal Associations TEXAS CERTIFICATION EXAM The Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Austin certifies legal assistants. To become board certified in a specialty area, a legal assistant must: 1. Have at least five years experience as a legal assistant (three years in Texas); 2. Currently work under the supervision of a licensed attorney doing business in Texas; 3. Have at least 50 percent of legal assistant duties concentrated in one of six legal assistant specialty areas: civil trial, family, personal injury trial, criminal, estate planning and probate, or real estate; 4. Attend 30 hours of CLE in a specialty area; 5. Successfully complete one of the following: � NALA certification; � A baccalaureate or higher degree; � ABA-approved legal assistant program; � A legal assistant program consisting of a minimum of 18 semester credit hours of which 18 hours are substantive legal courses in addition to a minimum of 45 semester credit hours of general college curriculum courses; or � Four additional years of actual legal assistant experience under the supervision of a licensed attorney, for a total of nine years of experience; 6. Have been evaluated by lawyers, judges and others associated with the specialty area; and 7. Pass a four-hour written examination. The tests are given once a year in Austin. There is a $50 application fee and a $100 examination fee. In addition, there is a $25 annual fee for each certificate of special competence earned. To maintain the certification, legal assistants must complete 75 hours of continuing legal education every five years. Credit also is given for teaching, writing and participating in the work of a professional committee. In addition, at least half of their work must be in their specialty area. Source: Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

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