May-June 2016

The quest for board certification

Donelle Keen, TBLS-BCP

Administrative ­Paralegal in the Milam County District ­Attorney’s Office

Why embark on the journey to become a board-certified paralegal in criminal law? There are lots of good reasons.

To some people outside the legal community, when they hear the word “paralegal,” they might think of Della from the old “Perry Mason” TV series. She was great at getting coffee, answering the phone, and filing the occasional sheet of paper, all while keeping an impeccable figure and the best manicured fingernails in history. But she hardly represents paralegals in the real world—especially the world of a district or county attorney’s office! A paralegal is not simply someone employed by an attorney but rather a skilled professional who works under an attorney’s supervision to draft pleadings, calculate deadlines, juggle settings, organize trial notebooks, and handle as much as possible to free up the attorneys to focus on prosecuting cases.
    I have been a member of the State Bar of Texas’s Paralegal Division since 1997 and as such have annual CLE requirements. For several years, I noticed the Texas Board of Legal Specialization vendors at various seminars and had picked up the information packets on getting board-certified more than once—earning my certification had long appealed to me because certified attorneys and paralegals are the best in their field. I would often think, “I want to do that someday,” but then the workload of the office and the daunting task of studying for an exam would push certification to the background.
     Working for a small, rural county means there is no financial reward in being certified, but it was a personal and professional goal that I longed for—I just postponed taking the first step for a while. I also did not know if my elected DA, Bill Torrey, would have an opponent in the upcoming election, but I thought if he had the only board-certified paralegal on his staff, it would look good for our office and administration. Mr. Torrey did not end up having an opponent, but I still felt that having a certified paralegal would reflect well on this office.
    Then in May 2015, my mother passed away, which was devastating to my world. But it also woke me up. I realized that tomorrow might not always be there. As do many in the legal world, I adhere to Scarlett O’Hara’s approach to “tomorrow” (“After all, tomorrow is another day”) way too often. My mother had encouraged me to go for it when it came to certification, and she never doubted my ability, so shortly after her death, I began my quest.

The Texas Board of Legal Specialization (TBLS) has a great website,, which contains all of the information for attorneys and paralegals to navigate the process of becoming board-certified. The first step is to apply to sit for the exam. The application deadline is usually mid-summer; for me it was July 1, 2015, with a test date of November 7. One requirement is a minimum of five years’ experience in the field for which you want to test (in my case, criminal law). In addition to the five years, a paralegal must have either two additional years of experience, a National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) certification, a bachelor’s degree or higher in any field, completion of an American Bar Association paralegal program, or completion of paralegal programs with various semester credit hours. You must also complete 30 hours of CLE in the specialty area in which you are testing within three years prior to the test.
    The nine-page application includes employment history and details of your work, such as the number of trials, appeals, plea papers, post convictions remedies, federal tasks, and probation revocation hearings in which you have been involved; current job duties; and of course certification by your supervising attorney that you are able to complete the various tasks listed. You must be in good standing with State Bar with no disciplinary issues and must also attest that a minimum of 50 percent of your paralegal duties have been devoted to the specialty area in which you are seeking certification. TBLS will also contact local judges and attorneys to attest to your competence. I sent in my application along with the required $75 fee by the deadline. At this point, I was invested—and determined.
    There is no study guide, no class to take, and no practice test—only a two-page guide from TBLS describing the test’s format and an outline of what it might cover: the entire Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure, and federal matters. This seemed rather daunting, so I decided to start the study process before finding out if I was accepted to sit for the exam. It took several weeks before I received the email stating I was accepted. I was excited for about a whole 10 minutes before reality set in … I would be taking a four-hour test on November 7!

Studying for the exam
I took my Penal Code home nightly to study, talked to another board-certified paralegal I met at a TDCAA training, and peppered my elected DA as well as the assistant prosecutors with questions. I am grateful that my boss and office were very supportive. My elected, Bill Torrey, encouraged me to “go for it” and would occasionally check up on my study progress, thus making me accountable. Sometimes, rather than answering my questions, my co-workers handed me a book (I gained strength in my biceps from toting these books daily), and a young ADA, Joseph P. Johnson, loaned me his criminal law course books, notebook, and handwritten notes from law school. Plus, TDCAA has done a great job training on Brady and the Michael Morton Act at every seminar I have attended, so that helped as well. And because the test covers both prosecution and defense, it greatly assisted me that I worked with my DA for eight years in private defense before he was elected. Most of what I studied I already knew and used in my job on a frequent basis, but now I understood why.
    About two weeks before the test, as feelings of panic and inadequacy set in, I looked on the TBLS website for the last paralegal certified in Criminal Law—she tested and passed last year. I sent her a panic-stricken email begging for whatever assistance she could provide. She kindly responded to my note, and finding this previously unknown cheerleader was calming to me. My boss allowed me to take a vacation day the Friday before the test; I crammed all that I possibly could and then drove to Austin so I would not have to make the trip the morning of the test.

Taking the exam
The TBLS staff was very friendly and the test was handled very professionally. All paralegals take the test on the same date, regardless of the specialty area; I’d estimate there were 40 nervous individuals testing that day. I will not lie: The test is brutal. There are a series of essay questions that cover ethics, procedure, deadline, etc., with practical, real-office scenarios. I have the gift of gab, so I was comfortable with the essay portion and wrote anything and everything that I thought was remotely relevant to the questions. I felt pretty good at the completion of the essay. We took a short break and began the multiple-choice portion next. After I finished that section, I wondered whether I had ever even sat in an attorney’s waiting room, let alone having spent the last 20 years in the legal field—that’s how hard it was. But I knew I had given it my best shot, and I could sit again next year if I did not pass.
    Then began the wait for my results. I thought everyone would have results by the end of December, but December came and went, and I heard nothing. Finally I broke down and called TBLS, and they told me they were nearing the end of the grading and that I would receive an email in mid-January. That week in January, I was checking my personal email account every hour, and finally on January 13 at 4:41 p.m. I received the message congratulating me on passing. Pandemonium ensued at the office! I was excited, elated, and so grateful to all the people in my office who encouraged me and helped me in the process. At first, I was aggravated that TBLS waited so late in the day to email—but then it occurred to me that my whole office was disrupted and I was completely unproductive for the next 19 minutes. It was probably a good thing that the email hadn’t come earlier in the day and disrupted even more of it.

Calling more paralegals in criminal law
I am the ninth paralegal to receive certification in Criminal Law since 1998. This number is very low compared to other certification areas, such as family law (131 certifications), civil trial (98), and personal injury (75). (You can go to the TBLS website for the complete listing.) Twenty-five paralegals were inducted in 2015, only one in criminal law. I would like to see this change. The work we do in criminal law is as important, if not more so, than any other area of the legal field. We are protecting society from criminals, and we do so ethically. And the knowledge I gained while studying for the test is priceless.
    It also reflects well on the office that I am board-certified. I hate the jokes about incompetent county or government employees—even some of my colleagues and attorney friends whom I’ve known for years from private practice teased me about joining the team at the DA’s office. I did not, as they might’ve seen it, take a step down. My work is important, as is the work in every district and county attorney’s office in the state of Texas. It would be wonderful for more paralegals to become board-certified. We already know what we are doing as we prep our attorneys for trial, revocation hearings, and so on—let’s prove it by earning our certification!
    I encourage everyone to check out the TBLS website, www.tbls .org, for more information. And please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or need encouragement—I would love to help others attain their certification. It is a great feeling, and it reflects well on your office and on prosecution as a whole.