By Meredith Gross, ACP, TBLS-BCP
Certified Paralegal in the Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Rockwall County
How many times has someone said to you, “You should go to law school,” or “I bet if I handed this code book to you, you could prosecute this case yourself”?
Maybe law school isn’t in your plans right now—or ever. And maybe you don’t want to be the one at counsel table calling the shots and being in the thick of trial. But you’ve worked a long time and know criminal law procedure better than some attorneys—you may have even helped train some of the office’s “baby” prosecutors. For you, your role in a prosecutor office is more than just an 8 to 5, Monday through Friday job; this is your career. It’s what you are great at doing. You may want to do more, to be more—but how?
One way is by becoming a Certified Paralegal. With this title and training comes not only investment in yourself and your office but also added responsibilities, income possibilities, and deeper involvement with the cases your office prosecutes.
What is a paralegal?
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), a 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 who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
Paralegals are allowed to do much of the legal work that an attorney would otherwise do. In a law firm setting, a paralegal’s time spent on substantive legal work is billed to clients, similar to attorneys, but often at a lower rate. This distinguishes paralegals from other non-lawyer staff members. Utilization of paralegals in a law firm ultimately reduces the cost to the client and frees up attorneys’ time for other tasks. Working under the supervision of an attorney, the paralegal’s work product is merged with and becomes part of the attorney work product for a client. In communications with clients and the public, the paralegal’s non-lawyer status must be clear. Public sector and civil attorneys’ offices have relied on paralegals for years to do the groundwork, review, and research.
There are several things a paralegal cannot do. Only licensed attorneys may give legal advice to consumers of legal services; paralegals are prohibited from doing so. Paralegals also are prohibited from accepting a case, setting a fee, representing a client in court (unless authorized by the court), or performing any duty specifically reserved for licensed attorneys. All states require attorneys to be licensed, and most have statutes imposing penalties for those found to be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Why would you want to become a paralegal?
How many prosecutor offices have been short-staffed over the last few years? How long does it take to fill those positions, and how much work piles up in the meantime? Lately, prosecutor offices are struggling to find qualified attorneys for several reasons, including the rising cost of living and salary restrictions at a government office.
Paralegals can take on some of the work attorneys might otherwise do, including doing intake, reviewing charging instruments, drafting motions and orders, electronically filing pleadings, preparing jury charges, redacting discovery, contacting witnesses, and attending court hearings and trials with a prosecutor. They can also write and sign correspondence, provided their paralegal status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice. Ultimately paralegals can do the legwork throughout a case that some attorneys find to be time-consuming or consider “busy work.”
Plus, training a new attorney takes time. Yes, supervisors will have to cross that bridge when you hire a prosecutor, but capable staffers may already be in the office. Chances are, key personnel already know how to assess cases. All offices use their staff in different ways, so think outside the box: What tasks are prosecutors doing that could be better assigned to a paralegal?
For myself, as a new staff supervisor four years ago, I was managing young clerks fresh out of school who had taken American Bar Association-approved paralegal courses and were planning to get their certifications. I didn’t know what that meant at that time, but I figured that if I were going to be supervising them, I should probably be at their level in training. Turns out, I already was—I just didn’t have the credentials to claim it. And so, I began my journey to become a Certified Paralegal.
While I have been rewarded with career advancement, I started this journey for me. I have gained more confidence and pride in myself and my work product. I am more invested in my daily activities at the office. I am eager to get involved with our local bar association and serve on TDCAA’s Key Personnel–Victim Services Board.
I want to help my office and make life easier for my people. I am available to assist my prosecutors more. They relied on me before, but now they too are more confident in my abilities. In situations where they would normally do research themselves, they will ask me to assist instead. The more information I glean from CLE and the accreditation processes, the better equipped I become in helping my staff understand criminal law processes.
I like when my prosecutors point out that I am a Certified Paralegal to other attorneys, law enforcement, and member of other agencies. They are proud of my accomplishment, and it makes me feel valued.
How do you become a paralegal?
You can call yourself a “paralegal” if you do a paralegal’s work, even if you don’t have the training. Or you can become a Certified Paralegal, and there are two ways to do that. You can earn a paralegal certificate or you can become a Certified Paralegal. People are frequently confused by this similar nomenclature. In short, if you have completed a paralegal education program for which you have a certificate hanging on your wall, you can say you are “certificated.” This is different from being certified.
If you have successfully passed a paralegal certification exam through the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) or National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), you are a Certified Paralegal. This certification confers a credential you put after your name, such as Jane Doe, RP or Jane Doe, CP. Maintaining this credential requires ongoing continuing legal education (CLE). These credentials can be verified by prospective employers by contacting the issuing organization.
An added benefit with certifications through NALA and NFPA is that they are nationally recognized, meaning you are a Certified Paralegal anywhere in the United States.
In addition to formal education and on-the-job training, an exam is required to attain paralegal certification. Here’s what you need to know to qualify for certification with one of these organizations:
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Candidates for certification must meet one of the following requirements:
1) graduation from, completion of, or current enrollment in the last semester or quarter of a paralegal program that meets one of the following criteria:
• a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association,
• an associate degree program in paralegal studies,
• a post-baccalaureate certificate program in paralegal studies,
• a bachelor’s degree program in paralegal studies, or
• a paralegal program consisting of at least 60 semester hours, of which at least 15 are substantive legal courses; or
2) a bachelor’s degree in any field plus one year of experience as a paralegal or successful completion of at least 15 semester hours (or equivalent quarter hours) of substantive paralegal courses; or
3) a high school diploma or equivalent, plus seven years of experience as a paralegal and a minimum of 20 hours of continuing legal education completed within the two-year period prior to application for the examination.
An application and fee are required to take the two-part examination. Additional information can be found at https://nala.org.
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Candidates for certification must meet one of the following requirements:
1) a Bachelor’s degree in:
• paralegal studies,
• any subject plus a paralegal certificate, or
• any subject with no paralegal certificate plus six months of substantive paralegal experience and one hour of NFPA®-approved ethics CLE within the year preceding application; or
2) an Associate’s degree in:
• paralegal studies, or
• any subject plus a paralegal certificate, or
• any subject with no paralegal certificate, plus one year of substantive paralegal experience and six hours of NFPA®-approved CLEs, including one CLE hour of ethics within the year preceding the application; or
3) paralegal certificate plus with one year of substantive paralegal experience and six hours of NFPA®-approved CLEs, including one CLE hour of ethics within the year preceding the application; or
4) military paralegal rate job plus substantive paralegal experience defined by rank and one CLE hour of ethics within the year preceding application; or
5) NFPA® Assurance of Learning Education Partner Students; or
6) high school diploma or GED plus five years of substantive paralegal experience, and 12 hours of NFPA®-approved CLEs, including one CLE hour of ethics within two years preceding the application.
Along with verifying documents, an application and fee are required to take the examination. Additional information can be found at www.paralegals.org.
These exams require a great deal of studying. They are no joke, so don’t think just because you do this every day that you know it. You don’t. The exams cover all areas of law. After studying for the NALA exam, I know more now about corporate, family, and real estate law than I care to. I did, however, gain valuable information while studying wills and trusts which opened my eyes to things I needed to take care of in my personal life.
What does it cost to become a Certified Paralegal?
There are costs and fees involved with the initial education and CLE trainings required to qualify for certification. Additionally, there are application fees, costs for study guides, testing center fees, and if you decide to join an organization, annual dues. You may be required to pay some or all these costs yourself.
Sit down with your supervisor or elected prosecutor and discuss the benefits of this certification and how it can help the office—maybe they can help with some of the fees. Maybe instead of attending a big out-of-town training, you can offset the costs by attending online training and using the training funds to pay for the certification exam. Find out whether your county offers education pay. It costs less to employ a paralegal than an attorney.
How many hours of CLE are required yearly?
Sometimes I think I need an assistant to keep up with the hours for reporting! I’m sure you have heard legal assistants or paralegals say, “Well, it’s not my bar card”—but it could be. Qualified paralegals can become members of the State Bar of Texas Paralegal Division (SBOT-PD). Establishment of this division was the first such action by any state bar association in the country, with the Texas division recently having celebrated its 40th year.
Renewing active and associate members must complete six hours of substantive CLE, at least one hour of which must be legal ethics. (More about substantive and non-substantive CLE below.) Additional information can be found at https://txpd.org.
Other organizations you may consider joining are NALA, NFPA (both mentioned above), Texas Bar College, Texas Board of Legal Specialization (TBLS), or a local bar association. The NALA requires Certified Paralegals to complete 50 hours of CLE, including five hours of legal ethics, during each five-year recertification period. To renew a CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP™) license with NFPA, you must complete eight hours of substantive CLE. The Texas Bar College requires 12 hours of accredited CLE in the previous or current calendar year, which must include two hours of ethics. To recertify with TBLS, applicants must complete 75 hours of CLE in the specialty area by December 31st of each fifth year of certification. 
How do you get CLE hours?
There are many ways:
• attendance at a live CLE program, including live video conferences,
• viewing or listening to an online CLE program,
• participating in a CLE teleconference,
• attendance at a showing of a CLE video,
• self-study, reading legal articles, daily legal work activities, and caselaw research, and
• other activities in the specialty area, to be determined on an individual basis, such as teaching a CLE course for attorneys or paralegals, participation as a panelist or speaking on a symposium or similar program, attendance at a lecture series or similar program sponsored by a qualified education institution or bar group, authorship of a book or article published in a professional publication or journal; and active participation in the work of a professional committee dealing with a specific problem in the specialty area.
For the most part, it’s simple: Ask yourself, “Does this course address my or my office’s daily activities?” If the answer is yes, then count it as CLE. If the answer is no, then you don’t. Your CLE should be primarily in the area of law you encounter.
Also, there are three main categories of CLE: substantive, non-substantive, and legal ethics. Generally, programs that are from reputable companies, that feature attorneys or attorney-paralegal teams, and that are on subjects of a substantive nature related to the law practice sections will qualify for CLE credit. For instance, mock trials, expunctions, bond forfeitures, judgments, contract law, and trusts all qualify for substantive credit.
Non-substantive credits include mediation, law office management, computer programs or applications, communications, office technology, self-help, mental health, or prevention of substance abuse courses.
Ethical courses that do not include material relating to the “delivery of legal services” will not count as courses for which you can claim credit. For purposes of CLE, legal ethics is defined as the code of professional responsibility detailing the moral and professional duties required in the delivery of legal services.
Do TDCAA conferences count toward your CLE hours?
Yes, most do. CLE with State Bar course numbers that are already approved for attorneys will count for Certified Paralegals too; TDCAA’s Legislative Updates are one example. TDCAA’s Key Personnel & Victim Assistance Coordinator Conference does not have a State Bar course number, but many of the courses focus on criminal law, so those specific presentations count as substantive CLE hours.
I have not encountered an issue with course approval when reporting the hours to the organizations of which I am a member. If I have a question whether the hours will count and I am unable to get an answer, then I don’t report them. They may still be used as non-substantive hours for certification.
How do you report CLE hours?
Each organization will have a portal or procedure for logging hours to report CLE. The SBOT-PD online log is used by the Texas Bar College too, so you need to report it in only one location.
I keep the approval emails for my records just as if it were a certificate of attendance. This way when I report my hours, I have all the verification. You may want to create a personal log or spreadsheet for keep track of these hours.
Any hours for TBLS can be submitted for approval prior to the event, meaning you can have TBLS approve the hours before you sign up for the class. This is important to remember if your county pays for training. You may be trying to decide between conferences and this approval may make the decision easier. Just because a course is not TBLS-approved does not mean that you can’t count it toward certification or other CLE requirements for organizations of which you have become a member.
Use your best judgment. Certified Paralegals are held to a high level regarding ethics, i.e., integrity, so if you don’t feel like a course pertains to your daily activities or your office as a whole, then don’t count it.
If you still have concerns, contact TBLS or other organizations and ask whether they will approve a course. You may need to provide the organization with a course agenda. Keep the confirmation emails with your course certificate of attendance or completion. You will need all this information if you are audited. Each organization has a thorough list of what they consider qualifying CLE. Check the individual organizations for all the specific qualifying CLE.
What are some other CLE resources and tips?
Don’t turn on a webinar and walk away. We all know the difference between merely sitting through a course and actually gleaning any information from it.
Don’t pass up an opportunity to get free hours. I have sat through many webinars because they were free. Some were not related to criminal law, but I found the information to be personally beneficial. The Texas Center for Legal Ethics and SBOT-PD division offers free lunch CLE: Bring your lunch to work that day and take the free training over the lunch hour. The SBOT-PD division of the State Bar does a great job of having not only speakers that offer good information but who are also entertaining.
Many offices do in-house training for their prosecutors and request CLE credit from the State Bar. These hours also count for paralegals.
The Texas Victim Assistance Training (TVAT) Online is a statewide foundational victim assistance training focused on victim-centered service delivery and professional development. TVAT Online complements other victim service initiatives and enables new victim service professionals to acquire baseline professional skills and competence. This free training is provided by TDCJ Additional information can be found at www.tdcj.texas.gov/divisions/vs/tvat_online .html.
Find out who your regional representative is through the SBOT-PD division and ask if he or she knows of local bar associations that offer CLE. You usually don’t have to be a member to take the course, and some offer them for as little as $5.
Even if your local bar association doesn’t have a paralegal division, see if it will still let you attend trainings with attorneys who are members. Maybe the local bar is waiting for more paralegal interest before allowing them to become members or to establish a paralegal branch of the association.
I don’t claim to be an attorney, and I don’t want to be one. I respect the title and the years of hard work and education it takes to become an attorney. It’s called the practice of law for a reason—it requires years of practice! I love my prosecutors and the work they do. I enjoy being the woman behind the curtain making things happen. For me, becoming a certified paralegal was an easy choice. I’m not going to go back to school, but I want my daughters and granddaughter to see that it is never too late to improve yourself and reach a goal for higher recognition and self-satisfaction.
 https://texasbarcollege.com/wp-content/uploads/ 2022/10/Paralegal-Member-Application-Form.pdf.