The nation's leading organization for paralegals believes the certified legal assistant credential is essential to receiving respect and greater opportunities in the profession of law.

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) is a professional association offering continued education and career development programs for paralegals throughout the country. Founded in 1975, NALA designed the certification program to support its mission of demonstrating academic excellence while also providing calculable evidence of industry expertise.

As of February 2007, NALA reported that 13,958 legal assistants (or paralegals, the term is interchangeable) were certified in the United States, 101 of whom were employed in West Virginia.

To receive the profession's credential, a legal assistant must pass five sections of the CLA exam within a three-year period. Because the process is strictly voluntary, many in the field question whether a passing grade means a mandatory pay raise for the newly certified.

"Legal assistants with the CLA credential receive higher salaries nationwide and their work is billed at higher rates than those without the designation," said V. Jane Lambert, treasurer of Legal Assistants/Paralegals of West Virginia (LAPSWV). "With the higher salary comes the increase in responsibilities in one's work, independence, high credibility with clients, and most importantly, job satisfaction.

"Moreover, CLAs are respected by lawyers and have high recognition from their peers. As a CLA, one has a positive self-image as well as a greater awareness of professionalism and ethics."

Law firms, corporations and other legal agencies recognize the professional certification as a credible measure of paralegal competence. Results from surveys issued by NALA revealed that certified paralegals were better utilized in fields where lawyers required a dependable breadth of ability. The American Bar Association acknowledges the certification as a mark of high professional achievement, while some states permit the program's logo to be stamped on participating firms' letterhead.

To be eligible for the CLA examination, a paralegal must be a graduate of a legal assistant school, or, he or she must possess an undergraduate degree from a college or university. For those individuals who lack formal training approved by The American Bar Association, a high school diploma is accepted, but the candidate must have served seven years as a paralegal with accumulated hours of continued legal education.

After the successful completion of the testing sections dedicated to communications, ethics, legal research, judgment and analytical ability, and substantive law, the newly certified legal assistant holds the credential for a period of five years. To maintain use of the title, a paralegal must record 50 hours of continued legal education classes within a five-year span. Lifetime certification is not available.

As a participant in the CLA program, legal assistants can expect to invest $500 or more in application fees, textbooks, review manuals, tutoring sessions, and mock examinations. Some law firms absorb the expenses for each legal assistant willing to go through the program, while other firms choose to let paralegals pay for it themselves. However, financial aid can be earned through a scholarship sponsored by LAPSWV.

NALA organizers stress that paralegal certifications create positive situations for employers, such as the higher billing rates to which Lambert referred. Career counseling websites indicate that while lawyers assume ultimate responsibility for legal work, they often delegate many of their tasks to paralegals. The United States Department of Labor reports full-time, salaried paralegals earn an average of $39,000 per year.

For more information, go to www.nala.org or www.lapswv.org.

Katy Brown is the managing member of and senior writer for The Write Word LLC. Once a legal marketing executive, she now works as a communications consultant, teaching courses in English grammar, business correspondence, public speaking, and professional etiquette. For more information, go to www.thewritewordllc.com.

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