What is a Paralegal?
As defined by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (“NFPA”), a Paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work. Substantive shall mean work requiring recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.
As defined by The American Bar Association (ABA), a legal assistant or paralegal is 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.
How Do I Become a Paralegal?
Paralegals can receive education from paralegal programs offered at two-year and four-year colleges or universities. Proprietary schools generally award post-baccalaureate certificates. NFPA's findings indicate 85% of all paralegals receive some formal paralegal education. Paralegal education programs offer degrees and/or certificates.
NFPA recognizes that a two-year degree with an emphasis in paralegal studies is acceptable to employers in some markets as a minimum criterion for individuals to enter the paralegal profession. However, current trends across the country, as illustrated through various surveys, indicate that formal paralegal education has become a requirement to secure paralegal employment, and a four-year degree is the hiring standard in many markets. Consequently, NFPA recommends that future practitioners should have a four-year degree to enter the profession, and individuals receiving a formal paralegal education should have 24 semester hours or the equivalent of legal specialty courses to enhance their ability to practice as paralegals.
How To Choose a Particular School?
Once you have determined a paralegal career is for you, you then need to consider specific information about paralegal education. NFPA has a Suggested Curriculum for Paralegal Studies that you should consider. The American Association for Paralegal Education and NFPA have prepared a paper entitled A Guide to Quality Paralegal Education which you will find helpful. Several law-related organizations have published information on How To Choose a Paralegal Program.
Should You Enroll in an ABA-approved Program?
NFPA's current representative to the American Bar Association Approval Commission encourages the selection of an ABA approved program; click here for a list of ABA approved education providers. ABA approval means that the program has met or exceeded minimum educational standards established by the ABA in terms of curriculum, faculty, quality of instruction, library, student services, advisory committee support, job placement and other facilities.
Is distance education an option?
Distance education is defined as a situation where the instructor and student are at some distance from one another yet interactive communication exists. While recognizing that distance education may not be appropriate for courses that require hands-on application, NFPA believes that distance education is a viable alternative within NFPA's existing core curriculum and education policies. Due to its accessibility and flexibility, for a select group of highly motivated students, distance education may be the only form of paralegal education available.
While NFPA recognizes distance education as a viable educational alternative within NFPA's core curriculum and education policies, NFPA further recognizes that distance education may not be appropriate for all courses, e.g., legal research and writing, internships and any other courses which require practical, hands-on applications and are required under NFPA's core curriculum.
What Colleges or Institutions for Paralegal Studies exist in Vermont?
Champlain College, located in Burlington, offers a four-year Bachelor’s Degree in Legal Studies major.
Champlain's Legal Studies (Pre-law) program will give you the foundation of knowledge and skills you need to be of great value to attorneys and other legal professionals or to prepare you to go on to a top-tier law school. Your Legal Studies education will provide you with analytical and practical skills in subjects such as trial practice and procedure, personal and property crime, contract preparation and negotiation, real estate matters, negligence and product liability, family issues, and estate planning. The program helps lay the groundwork for virtually every task in the practice of law, from interviewing clients and researching law to preparing life-altering documents and supporting trials.
In other courses and electives you will learn more specialized skills: selecting and evaluating relevant evidence for use in civil and criminal trials, preparing bankruptcy filings, helping foreigners navigate through the immigration and naturalization process, and testing constitutional boundaries of free speech and equal protection.
What regulation does Vermont have regarding Paralegals?
Vermont currently has no regulation, registration or certification requirements for paralegals.
What is a Certified Paralegal?
"Certified paralegals" have met the criteria for certification established by a governmental, non-governmental, or professional association. "Certification" generally signifies an advanced level of competency by paralegals who have met a required number of years experience in the profession and/or passed a qualification examination of a professional association. Paralegal certification is generally a voluntary process obtained through or regulated by some non-governmental professional association. The non-governmental agency or association grants certification to individuals who have met certain pre-determined qualifications, specified by that agency or association. Such qualifications can include graduation from an accredited program, taking a qualifying examination, completion of a certain amount of work experience, or a combination thereof. Some state bar associations offer voluntary certification exams available only to paralegals who work for attorneys licensed to practice law in those states.
Voluntary certification exams are also offered by several of the professional paralegal associations, each of which have varying eligibility requirements based on formal education and years of legal experience. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA®) offers two voluntary certification exams - the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE®) and the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE™). Upon passing PACE®, the paralegal earns the designation of PACE Registered Paralegal® or RP®. Upon passing the PCCE™, the paralegal earns the designation of CORE Registered Paralegal™ or CRP™.
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers a certified paralegal exam as well as an advanced paralegal certification program. Paralegals who pass this exam may designate themselves as Certified Paralegals and are entitled to use the "CP" (Certified Paralegal) or "CLA" (Certified Legal Assistant) designation. The advanced paralegal certification program allows experienced paralegals an opportunity to become certified in specific practice areas of law. Paralegals who pass any of these courses may call themselves Advanced Certified Paralegals and are entitled to use the "ACP" certification mark registered by NALA.
NALS offers an exam to paralegals who have five years experience performing paralegal/legal assistant duties. Passing the NALS exam entitles the paralegal to use the designation Professional Paralegal or "PP" after their name. This certification is valid for five years; recertification may be achieved through the accumulation of CLE hours and activities. The American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPI) offers certification of qualified paralegals without an exam. Applicants for the AAPI certification must possess no less than five years of substantive paralegal experience and must meet one of the three educational criteria. Once application is made and approved by a Commission of members of the AAPI , the applicant will be permitted to use the designation American Alliance Certified Paralegal ("AACP").
"Certification" is often confused with "certificated." See the below table which explains the difference:
Paralegal certification is an independent, unbiased measurement of the paralegal's ability to successfully fulfill the functions of a paralegal. By obtaining certification, a paralegal has proven that he or she has achieved a nationally recognized and standardized level of professional achievement, and that they will be able to provide quality service to their employer and to their employers' clients.