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Dorothy Secol, CLA

By: Dorothy Secol, CLA (Guest Blogger)

Long ago and not so far away, I started my career as a legal secretary.  I loved my job; I loved working in the law and always looked for a way to improve my skills. At that time the term “paralegal” didn’t exist.  There were no paralegal courses given in colleges and no proprietary paralegal schools.

I was very lucky in that I worked for a sole practitioner who believed I should learn as much as possible and who encouraged me to work independently.  He took me to seminars given in particular areas of substantive law that we would be working in.  He also encouraged me to seek out and learn new  procedures in the New Jersey Practice Series.  He felt that even though I may not do something right the first time, I would know better the second time on.  Thus I was able to learn a good deal of substantive law in many different areas.

Some years later, the term “paralegal” or “legal assistant” was cropping up and I started reading about paralegals working around the country.  The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) was formed and as soon as I learned about it, I joined.  I felt at that time I was doing work that would be characterized as “paralegal” work.   Our office had grown; we had taken on partners and at one time I managed the office which was comprised of 4 attorneys and 5 full time secretaries and two part time secretaries.

When NALA first introduced the CLA exam, (Certified Legal Assistant),  I was very interested in taking it.  If you passed the exam, you could use the designation “CLA” after your name.   NALA felt very strongly about voluntary certification as a means to attain excellence in the profession.   In order to qualify to sit for the CLA exam, one had to meet certain criteria which I will describe later.  I was very excited about the designation.  I felt it was something very important that I could do for myself, and that, in years to come,  would indicate that you went that extra step, took an extra mile so to speak.  It would become one way to differentiate those who took that “extra step.”

Becoming a CLA was another story.  You had to take a two day exam consisting of true and false questions, multiple choice and essay.  The essay questions would be given on the areas of substantive law that you chose.  I believe, at that time, we had to choose 5 areas of substantive law and then there was legal research.  At that point in my career, I had done very little research and that was the hardest for me.  Remember, this was back in the days where there were no computers, no internet, no research software.  You either had to have the library in your office, or go to a good public library or the law library in your county.  I had no idea where to start first.  This was also at a time where there were no CLA courses, no mock exams – you were on your own.

About 3 months before the exam, I decided I was going to study for 2 hours a night and more on weekends.  I read, and read and read, everything I could get my hands on with regard to the areas of law I had chosen, Real Estate, Contract Law, Probate, Corporate and Personal Injury.  Legal Research was the hardest for me.  My boss helped me with Shepardizing and explained the background for me.  The test also consisted of English grammar, writing, spelling,  cite checking, etc.  I believe at that time, the test was only given twice a year and you had to go to a state in which the exam was held.  I went to Philadelphia, PA. to take the test.

When I passed the exam in 1978 there were 138 CLAs in the country.  Today there are over 15,000 CLAs.

In order to maintain the CLA designation, one has to meet a criteria of continuing legal education, (CLE) over a 5 year period.  We had to have CLE credits way before attorneys in New Jersey had to have it. 

Today, the term “Legal Assistant” has been changed pretty much to “Paralegal”. The CLA designation remains, however, there is a new title of  “Certified Paralegal” (CP).  You can choose whichever designation you desire. NALA believes that professional certification is a time honored process respected by both employers and those within the career field. 

The CLA exam was established in 1976 and it serves as a National professional standard for legal assistants; it is a means of identifying those who have reached this standard; it is a credentialing program to meet the needs of legal assistants and is responsive to the fact that this form of self-regulation is necessary to strengthen and expand development of our career field.  The exam also is a positive, voluntary program to encourage the growth of the legal assistant/paralegal profession. As of January, 2011 there were 16,382 CLAs and nearly 2300 ACLAs (Advanced CLA). Over 25,000 have participated in the program.

Today, NALA supplies study programs to help with preparation for the exam.  These study programs include:

            ●            American Legal System
            ●            Civil Litigation
            ●            Contracts
            ●            Ethics
            ●            Judgment and Legal Analysis
            ●            Legal Research
            ●            Real Estate
            ●            Written Communication

You may take advantage of on-line programs which consist of written text and slides, with audio recordings of the text.   NALA also publishes several books that are  helpful  and local affiliates may offer study groups.

NALA also recommends The Elements of Style, Strunk and White as a study guide for the Communications portion of the exam.  a Uniform System of Citation, Harvard Law Review Association, is recommended for the Legal Research section.

NALA also offers continuing education programs, “The CLA/CP Short Course” which is the mainstay of the continuing education program.   This is a 2 ½ day intensive program generally offered each fall.

Another source of review programs are classes offered through local community colleges.  These are particularly helpful if you need to review a specific subject. The following are the required 5 sections of the CLA/CP exam:

            ●            Communications – 1 ½ hours (Essay required)
            ●            Judgment and Analytical Ability – 2 hours (Essay required)
            ●            Ethics – 1 hour
            ●            Legal Research – 1 ½ hours
            ●            Substantive Law – 2 hours

The Substantive Law section consists of five parts.  One is on the American Legal System required of all examinees; the other 4 parts are in practice areas of law and are selected by examinee from a list on the application form. Timing begins once the proctor has released the exam.  There are no schedule breaks during the exam – if a break is taken during testing, the clock with continue to run.

A passing score of 70% or more of the total points is required for each examination section.  The examination sections and total points are as follows:

100 total points
Passing score 70 points or more
Objective questions total 70 points; essay counts for 30 points

Judgment and Analytical Ability
150 points are allotted to the essay question
Passing score is 105 or more

100 total points      
Passing score is 70 points or more

Legal Research
100 total points
Passing score is 70 points or more

Substantive Law
500 total points
Passing score is 350 or more points

Distribution of points among the 5 parts of this exam is not considered in determining a passing score.  Examinees may do well on one or more sections, poorly on others. Results of the exam are provided via US Mail to all examinees and are released during the first week of the second month following the test window.  Examinees will receive a “pass” designation, however failing scores are provided with a report of the areas that appeared to be most difficult.  If you fail a particular area, you may retake that section.

Taking the CLA exam was a great experience for me.  It is very satisfying to know that you have accomplished your goal and that you have a title to show for it.  I would highly recommend taking the exam for all who have chosen to make this your career.

For more information regarding the CLA, visit: http://www.nala.org/certification.aspx


Dorothy Secol, CLA has worked in the legal profession for over 35 years and has been a freelance paralegal since 1982.  She maintains an office in Allenhurst, New Jersey, doing business as Dorothy Secol, CLA.    Dorothy is a graduate of Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Ms. Secol is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and received her CLA status in 1978.  In addition, she is a former trustee of the Central Jersey Paralegal Association and a former Vice-President and trustee of Legal Assistants Association of New Jersey. She is also an associate member of the New Jersey State Bar Association and a former Co-Chair of that Committee.  She is also a member of the Real Property and Probate Section and the Foreclosure Committee.  Ms. Secol serves on the Paralegal Advisory Boards of Brookdale Community College and Ocean County College and is a mediator for the Ocean Township, Allenhurst and Deal Municipal Courts appointed by the New Jersey Superior Court.

Ms. Secol is the author of Starting and Managing Your Own Business: A Freelancing Guide for Paralegals, published by Aspen Publishing Co.  and has written articles for the ANew Jersey Law Journal,@ and ANew Jersey Lawyer.@  In addition, Ms. Secol was a petitioner in the case of In re Opinion 24 of the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, 128 N.J. 114 (1992).  The case validated the fact that Athere is no distinguishable difference between an in-house and freelance paralegal working under the direct supervision of an attorney.

Ms. Secol has presented seminars on real estate procedure, probate procedure and law office management as well as how to set up a business as a freelance paralegal. For contact information, see www.dorothysecolcla.com

A special thanks to Dorothy for sharing her insights and personal experience with us!  If you have anything you’d like to share regarding the CLA, please feel free to leave us a comment! We’d love to hear from you.