These terms are often confused by legal professionals, educators, and students; however, the terms have separate and distinct meanings.
A paralegal certificate is something that a paralegal will possess upon successful completion of a formal program in paralegal education and training. Depending upon the prerequisites of the program, the student may have a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in another field. The certificate program will only offer legal specialty courses and could be a program that lasts six weeks to several months. Once the student successfully completes the prescribed course of study, the student is issued a certificate. This paralegal is now “certificated” in paralegal studies. Not all paralegal education and training programs are created equal; each program will develop a curriculum that follows the guidelines of their accrediting body, if applicable.
Occasionally, a paralegal may present him/herself “certified” by virtue of completing a paralegal training course or another type of preparatory education. Although the student may receive a certificate upon completion, this does not make the student a certified paralegal. In this instance, the certificate is an acknowledgment of completion of a paralegal training program. Professional certification from an entity such as NALA or TBLS recognizes specific skills, experience, and knowledge.
A certified paralegal is one that has successfully passed one of the voluntary certification examinations offered by a certifying organization (see “Paralegal Certifications” table below or click here for a printable version). Certification grants formal recognition to a paralegal that has met certain educational and work experience requirements and passed the exam given by the certifying organization. Upon successful completion of the organization’s exam, the paralegal is a “certified” paralegal and may represent him/herself as such by displaying the designation attributable to the organization. There is no single authority in the United States that oversees the paralegal profession.
*For a detailed list of prerequisites, see the certifying organization's website.