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 Sami  Hartsfield, ACP

By: Sami K. Hartsfield, ACP – Guest Blogger
Part II of our Designation Series

I should state from the first that when I took the grueling two-day Certified Paralegal™ exam back in 2007, it was on paper. You know the kind, where you bubble in your answers in the little corresponding circles. There was also a written portion where a fact scenario was presented and questions asked. On this portion, I wound up writing—in pencil—about a page and a half describing an accident scene, who the important witnesses were that I would want to interview (and what I’d ask them). I don’t want to give too much away about that portion of the exam, but let’s just say the test was querying whether or not I’d know whom I needed to talk to and why, and generally how to pick up on clues to discern the whole fact scenario as best one could without actually seeing it happen.

Now I hear the Certified Paralegal™ (or Certified Legal Assistant) exam is computerized, so some parts may be tested a little differently these days. The substance of the exam, I’m sure is likely still the same. When I took it, the exam was two days, but last time I checked online, it read “two and one-half days.” It also included this list as the basics of the exam:

  • American Legal System
  • Ethics
  • Judgment and Legal Analysis
  • Legal Research
  • Written Communications
  • Substantive Law:
    • Of which you can choose four of the following:
      • Administrative Law
      • Bankruptcy
      • Business Organizations
      • Civil Litigation
      • Contracts
      • Criminal Law and Procedure
      • Estate Planning and Probate
      • Family Law
      • Real Estate

Quite frankly, I enjoyed the whole process so much I volunteered to come back and “teach” the “American Legal System” the following year.

Certification is voluntary, and as someone who went back to school later in life to begin a new career, I thought it would give me a leg-up. Now I read frequently on list serves whether or not certification is either necessary or desired (as is licensure). It depends upon whom you ask. Some of my employers were duly impressed, and those usually were the ones who likewise were impressed by graduation from an ABA-approved paralegal school (as all attorneys are required to). But there were others who either did not know what certification involved, or perhaps relied heavily on actual experience. So, really, I hate to give that non-answer, but it just depends. I believe it’s an individual judgment call. I also believe it depends on what part of the country you live in, how many years experience you have, and what type of law you work in.

Since I had loads of administrative and secretarial experience with virtually no legal experience—beyond my own experience with family court—I decided it was a good idea. The exam is difficult, and it’s a tiring two days (to me, it was akin to the endurance aspect of the LSAT—in part, I wonder if one is also being tested on some type of endurance ability or disability, as whatever the case may be). I took it right as I was graduating, which I recommend to anyone in school while the material is still fresh in your mind.

I think this article is for those of us at least considering the test; whether or not you decide to pursue is, in my opinion, a personal decision. It does seem to make a difference, as I wrote earlier, which area of the country you hail from, and it also likely looks good on a resume in a faltering economy. It may be just enough to push your resume to the top of the pile. But be warned, it’s no easy task. But you CAN do it.

Let me also confess that one can find this conversation on almost any list serve having to do with paralegals—so read a lot of opinions, do your due diligence, and decide what’s right for you. My totally unscientific, but somewhat educated guess is that it will have more value in some cities than in others. I live in Houston, which has huge legal community, so having that CP after your name might indicate to some that you took that extra time and energy to take and pass the rigorous exam—that may mean something to a potential employer. I think, for me, it was more of a personal challenge. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, so I pushed myself academically. I wanted to see what I could do.

At the time I took the exam, NALA’s numbers were that only 30% passed on the first try, but don’t let that get you down if it happens. It simply allows you to see where maybe a little more practice and study wouldn’t hurt. And you have to take only those portions of the exam that you did not pass; you do not have to take the entire exam over again.

I took a prep course that if I recall correctly cost $250. It turned out to be a sound investment for me. Perhaps if you are short on funds, you can start your own online study group for free. Local paralegal organizations and schools usually offer some type of CP exam prep course. If you can afford, I’d definitely recommend going that route. If you can’t, again don’t despair, there are more than one or two or even three ways to study.

I bought the NALA prep manual and made flash cards on plain white index cards—that just turned out to be the right training method for me. I could whip them out anywhere and “study”: on the bus, in the grocery store line, at the doctor’s office, etc. I also set a schedule approximately three months before the exam where fortunately I had family members that knew better than to bother me during this time. I DO recommend making a schedule and sticking to it no matter what.

But not all of us learn the same way—you may be an audio learner, or a visual learner. Listen to NALA tapes in your car, or draw diagrams to hang on your wall (of, for example, the basic timeline for civil procedure).

Being a writer, the grammar section was probably the easiest for me, but I hear it gives a lot of folks the most trouble. Read up and dust off those old grammar rules. If you’re older like me—who went back to University at 36—you might be surprised to find that some grammar rules have changed (with the advent of computers and word processing), and some are even still open to interpretation and debate (is it ONE space after a period, or TWO?). Regardless, there are practice exams in the back of each section of the NALA practice manual. I suggest taking them over and over on a clean sheet of paper so you can monitor your progress. And start really paying attention to yours and others’ writing—if you are not sure of a word or manner of punctuation, look it up! (And please allow me to warn you here that sometimes you will run into situations where two answers appear to be correct. Obviously, go with what NALA says is the right answer, but I did notice when I went back to school some of the grammar rules had changed in conjunction with “computer writing,” and my impression is that not everyone is happy with the changes, or even agrees. But just go by your NALA book and you’ll be fine.)

For some examples, look up the so-called “Oxford comma,” otherwise known as the serial comma. Here in this sentence, you can clearly see its need due to its ambiguity in the meaning of the sentence:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

 Are Ayn Rand and God this person’s parents? Unlikely, so, what is the correct answer? To use or not use the Oxford comma. Like many other grammatical rules, the experts seem to differ. I’ll just defer to the Elements of Style on this one as that is what NALA officially uses.

Also, did you notice I put that comma after the word “comma” inside its quotation marks? That’s because the trend now is that punctuation marks always go inside the quotation marks (there was a time they didn’t; for instance—picture me doing finger quotes around the word superstar. Still just an example, but hopefully you get the gist. In other words, even if it’s not a direct quotation, the mark still goes inside the quotation marks. Oy! You want confusion, try reading Dickens’ novels, or is it Dickins’s novels?).

NALA officially uses Strunk & White’s Elements of Style as its communications go-to, so pick up a copy of this book. It’s short, usually inexpensive, and you can generally read it one day.

Another piece of advice is to do a litigation walk-through, if you will. NALA uses the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, so think of a fact scenario, or look one up, and walk through which rules will apply. Ideally, the more often you do this, the less often you actually have to look the rule up (though in real life, we’d most likely look the rule up, you will still need to know the basic rules for the exam).

Study how to write a memorandum of law. Then write one. And then write one again. The more you do a task in preparation, the more you will recall (it’s called creating a habit).

As for four substantive sections—you get to pick which four you wish to take. So, you’d obviously want to pick an area you work in or have worked in. Civil litigation is usually a gimme since so much law has at least something to do with this area. Also, I recommend choosing family law, criminal law, and perhaps administrative law for the simple fact that we hear so much about these areas, it’s easy enough to attempt an educated guess (and, unfortunately, many of us have personal experience with family law!)

I can’t stress enough that if you can’t afford to take a study prep course, you find a study group. I see many online, and it helps to bounce ideas off each other. You are also more likely to recall topics you’ve discussed and debated. That creates neurological pathways in your brain, making recall easier. You can also try mnemonic techniques, which works for me. Like making up acronyms for the elements of a crime. And this is also a great device for remembering which comes first in terms of primary authority, secondary authority, and other research/finding tools. It’s also a great way to recall the parts of a case brief or an appellate brief. IRAC anyone?

Be familiar with your case law, and the citations for each. Specifically, how to cite case law, statutes, ALR, federal digests, reporters, ad nauseum.

If you are a NALA member, then you will receive their quarterly magazine. The CP guru Virginia Koerselman-Newman, JD, always has an excellent snippet of a test in the magazine called “Communications Corner,” so be sure to check that out.

NALA has a great website with a special section on certification that can likely answer all your questions: http://nala.org/Certification.aspx

I’ll say just a few words about the Advanced Paralegal Certification since this article is mostly regarding the CP designation. If you’re like me, however, you are always seeking new knowledge and ways to hone your skills. Since earning the CP in 2007 (yes, on the first try, and what a thrill it was). I have gone on to earn six specialty certifications. Now these Advanced Certifications are all computerized, and you take them at your own pace, though you are given a time limit (I believe it’s three months). Really, the sky is the limit for as far as you want to go, and I’d suggest only going for the advanced certifications in areas you actually work in or are interested in working in. But definitely, at minimum, I would suggest earning your CP. It’s a great feeling!

For more information on NALA’s Advanced Certifications, you can check out their FAQs section here: http://nala.org/apc-faq.aspx

Would I recommend taking the CP exam? Yes, I would. I personally believe it shows the willingness of an individual to go the extra mile, plus the exam is just not an easy thing to do—it’s an intense exam spread over two days (or maybe two-and-a-half now). But would I do it again? You bet! If you are contemplating going for your CP, I say go for it! Just like any other professional achievement, it’s a feather in your cap. May mean something to a prospective employer and it may not (my last employer asked me what the ACP meant, but I’ve also seen plenty of want-ads requiring the CP designation), but it will sure mean something to YOU, and that, in the end, may matter the most. Besides, if *I* can do it, then anybody can do it! 

Sami K. Hartsfield, ACP is a paralegal and freelance writer based in Houston, Texas. She is a NALA Advanced Certified Paralegal, and has earned six specialty certifications since 2007: Discovery; Trial Practice; Contracts Management; Social Security Disability Law; and Entity & Individual Medical Liability. She has worked as a law firm Webmaster, law firm social media marketer, and ghostwriter for personal injury law firms. She holds a degree in paralegal studies with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor of science degree in political science, graduating summa cum laude. Sami interned with Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals under Chief Justice Adele Hedges, and completed the University of Houston Law Center’s Summer 2008 Prelaw Institute with a 4.0. You can find her on Facebook and e-mail her with questions, comments, or ideas at LegallyBlog@yahoo.com.  Be sure to check out Sami’s blog: LegallyBlog at www.samihartsfield.wordpress.com.

Copyright 2011 Sami K. Hartsfield – All Rights Reserved

We think Sami did a fabulous job with this article!  She offers some good, candid pointers and tells you exactly what you should know if you’re considering taking the CP exam.  If you would like to share your personal experience with the CP exam or have an additional tip or pointer to share with our readers, please feel free to leave a comment!  We’d love to hear from you.