Are you calling yourself certified? Chances are you’re mistaken.

Question mark2Here we go. One more time! I know I’ve written about this a few months back. However, the topic keeps coming up: certification vs. certificate.  There is a difference and at some point, if you are declaring yourself “certified” when you only have a certificate, trouble is coming. Guaranteed.

A few weeks ago, a Bar Association contacted me to represent the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP) on a panel regarding the merits of certification. “Who is going to be on the panel with me?” I asked. The Bar rep answered, “The “other” organization providing an eDiscovery certification exam and two training organizations." I was unaware those two training organizations offered certification exams. I thought they offered certificate courses. Turns out they don't offer certification exams. Even the Bar Association doesn’t know the difference. This is downright embarrassing – and dangerous.

Confusing whether you are certified or you have received a certificate from a course or program is a universal mistake. I don’t believe anyone or any organization is deliberately giving out the wrong information. I think of it as mass confusion with no undertaking to correct the situation. The problem is, whether inadvertently or not, you are misrepresenting yourself.  For an industry that is based upon factual investigation, this speaks pretty poorly for the legal community.

Here’s the simple explanation: In order to be certified, you must take a rigorous exam from a non-biased third party, one that adheres to the best practices of the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA), generally in a separate facility, that demonstrates your skills, knowledge and experience. If you take a course and are handed a certificate, that is a certificate of completion or achievement. It means that you understand what went on in the course. It is in no way an indication that you are certified nor can you place credentials after your name – even if you took a final exam. That exam only assesses what you learned in the course.

A course teaches or trains you. A certification assesses your overall knowledge and skills. According to the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the absolute authority on certification exams:

  • "In contrast to certification and licensure, an assessment-based certificate program is an educational or training program that is used to teach learning objectives and assess whether those objectives were achieved by the student."  [The assessment  may be made via an exam as part of the course but does not signify  certification.]    
  • A certification program is designed to test the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform a particular job, and, upon successfully passing a certification exam, to represent a declaration of a particular  individual's professional competence." National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA)

In other words, take a course, even take a final exam that tests your knowledge of what you learned in the course and you are not certified. Take an official certification exam, pass it, and you are certified and can place credentials after your name.

The ABA does not certify any individual nor paralegal program. It approves a qualified paralegal program only. Here is what the ABA says in part regarding “certified” and “certificated” paralegals.

“It is important to distinguish between a paralegal certificate and certification.  The terms are often 
confused.  The terms are not interchangeable and have separate meaning.  A certificate verifies  that a student has successfully completed a paralegal educational program.

A certified paralegal is one that has successfully completed a certification exam or other 
requirements of the certifying organization. Certification is the process through which an organization
grants formal recognition to an individual that meets certain established requirements. This may includemeeting educational requirements, prior work experience as a paralegal and passing an examination. 
Once the paralegal has met these criteria, they may use a special designation namely, “certified 

NALA, the National Association for Legal Assistants, offers an excellent certification exam. To prepare one takes plenty of knowledge and bucks. OLP's eDiscovery and Litigation Support Certification exams each took over 18 months, 27 subject matter experts, several Ph.D's applying the science of psychometrics, surveys and beta testing. I'm quite sure NALA did the same.

If that doesn’t clear it up, here’s an excellent chart from the American Language and Speech Association. 



Results from an educational process.

Results from an   assessment process.

For both newcomers and   experienced professionals alike.

Typically requires some amount of professional experience

Awarded by educational programs or institutions.

Awarded by a third party, standard-setting organization.

Indicates completion of a course or series of courses with specific focus; is different than a  degree granting program.

Indicates mastery/competency as measured against a defensible set of standards, usually by application or exam.

Course content set a variety of ways (faculty committee; dean; instructor; occasionally through defensible analysis of topic area).

Standards set through a defensible, industry-wide process (job analysis/role delineation that results in an outline of required knowledge and skills).

Usually listed on a resume detailing education; may issues a document to hang on the wall.

Typically results in a designation to use after one's name (C.P.H., C.H.E.S.); may result in a document to hang or keep in a wallet.

Is the end result; demonstrates knowledge of course content at the end of a set period in time.

Has on going requirements in order to maintain; holder must demonstrate he/she continues to meet requirements. C.E.U.'s are continuing education units. For example, RN's and other allied health professionals are required to complete annual   C.E.U.'s to keep their licensure.

Provides the basis and gateway for achieving a degree.

No relationship with attaining higher education or degree.

The terms certification and credentials and designation are also often confused or used incorrectly.

  • Credentials attest to someone's knowledge or authority. Credentials can be a degree earned, e.g., M.P.H. and/or a list of published papers.
  • Certification is a process that results in credentials.
  • designation simply refers to the letters someone uses after their name (M.D., Ph.D., C.P.A.).

Why am I on my high horse once again? Because:
a) Confusing the terms says you don’t know your career. How sad is that? You need to be able to represent yourself correctly. Saying you are certified when you received a certificate of completion or achievement after completing either a course or even a 3-day workshop is not only a misnomer, it could be construed as misrepresentation. Would a lawyer say he/she is a lawyer if they didn’t take the Bar exam?

b) Your firm has hired someone who may be claiming expertise beyond reality. Still a cause for termination as far as I know.

c) Your firm has misrepresented to their client that you are credentialed when you are not. Here’s how that might go: Client loses case. Turns to firm and says, “You told me you had certified professionals. You don’t.” Law suit? The firm turns to you and says, “You represented that you were certified. You’re not.” Law suit? Termination? You turn to the organization who claimed you were certified after taking their program, seminar or course. You get the picture. Potential chaos just waiting to happen.

I have witnessed candidates losing job opportunities because employers realize the candidate knows nothing about their job. I have witnessed perfectly solid legal professionals otherwise embarrassing themselves by claiming they are certified when they are not. Even the organization that told you that you were “certified” may be confused. I don’t think anyone out there is doing it for any other reason than confusion.  I wish I could say that I was such a great person that I'm good natured about this. I know I need a little work in this arena. I just keep thinking, "This is the legal field. Aren't we are supposed to know the difference?"

Let me say it again. Take a program; a course; a 3-day seminar and get a certificate. You are not certified. This applies to paralegal programs, seminars, webinars, online courses and more. Take a genuine certification exam according to the best practices of NCCA, one that applies the science of psychometrics; is fair and non-biased, generally given in a secured facility; sometimes proctored; and with legitimate credentials based on knowledge, skills and experience. You have probably just gotten certified.

Why is this so important? Because the legal field should not be so confused. Not only is it humiliating, more importantly it is a clear statement we’re not doing our research. What else are we missing? Sure, we all make mistakes. However, what on earth does that say to clients? Let’s pull together and turn this around. It’s the right thing to do.