Back to the Books
to take and pass the two most popular paralegal exams.
Stacey Hunt, CLA,
CAS, and Ann Price, RP
January/February 2007 Issue
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
By Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS
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:
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.
Analytical Ability, which covers analyzing facts and evidence,
reading comprehension, data interpretation and logical reasoning.
Examinees also must write a research memo.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
client legal matters;
development of client
factual and legal
factual and legal
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
prior to taking the exam. Each chapter includes sample test questions
with detailed explanations of the logical process to deduce the correct
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
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
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
[email protected] or (425)
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
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
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:
want to validate their expertise by taking a nationally recognized
In the absence of
regulation, or with regulation on the horizon, paralegals want to
establish their own identifiable standards of professional
certification provides a sense of professional accomplishment;
can gain recognition and respect from peers;
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
[email protected]. 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
and click on “PACE/RP.”
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
Take vacation time
the week before the test to prepare.
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.
physically as well as mentally by getting plenty of sleep before the
exam and eating well.