Legal Industry: Licensing and Certification
From Law School to Practice - Required Licensing: Graduating from an accredited university with the conferral of the Juris Doctor, Juris Doctorate or Doctor of Jurisprudence degree serves as one component to becoming a courtroom lawyer, corporate lawyer or a small town solo practitioner.
But to truly practice law, the aspiring legal professional must receive licensure from the state. Enter the state bar exam
Examination Requirements [top]
All lawyers in the United States must be admitted to a state bar in order to be licensed as an attorney. Admission standards vary by state, but all states require applicants to take a bar examination. Most jurisdictions in the United States require bar candidates to take the Multistate Bar Examination, with some combination of local essay exams. Some states also require a multistate performance test and/or a responsibility (ethics) exam. Currently, only a handful of states subscribe to a "national" exam, the Uniform Bar Exam, which is comprised of the above components. There is a movement to adopt a national bar exam in more states so that law graduates can have more certainty in a difficult job market, and be prepared for admission in more than one state. The Conference on Chief Judges and the American Bar Association have both adopted resolutions in favor of a national exam.
To be eligible to take the state bar exams, each jurisdiction requires law students or graduates to submit an application. Parts of the application can be due eight months before the test date, compounding the difficulty for a law graduate who has not yet secured employment, and doesn't know which state to choose. Exams are scheduled in July and February. As part of the application process, most state bars also ask for letters of recommendation, references and other personal information.
The two days of tests can include the following:
- Multistate Bar Examination: Most states, including those with a Uniform Bar Examination, require the six-hour Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) as part of their overall bar examination. The American Bar Association's, Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, published annually, details the exam process. The MBE and other requirements are identified in the guide. Other standardized tests developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) may also be required by individual states. Specific requirements are listed on individual State of Jurisdiction Web sites.
- Multistate Performance Testing (MPT): Tests the practical skills of a beginning lawyer, consisting of two 90-minute skills questions.
- Multistate Essay Exam (MEE): Three-hour exam to test competency to practice.
- Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE): Required by almost all jurisdictions to test knowledge of the ABA codes on professional responsibility and judicial conduct.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners provides links to all state bar admission offices for specific information on each state's admission requirements.
Even though there are many options in the legal career field, it takes more than experience or claim of an area of specialization to be considered an expert in a specialty. Most states require that attorneys obtain a certification from the state bar or state board of legal specialization.
Certain states, for example, offer certifications recognizing specialties in the following fields of law: administrative law, business bankruptcy law, civil appellate law, civil trial law, consumer bankruptcy law, consumer law, commercial law, criminal law, estate planning and probate law, family law, health law, immigration and nationality law, juvenile law, labor and employment law, oil, gas and mineral law, personal injury law, trial law, real estate law, tax law and workers' compensation law.
Attorneys who meet the bar requirements for one of these areas can be called a specialist.
As unique as some of the inventions that come across their desks, patent attorneys fall into their own category of specialization. These lawyers are recognized under federal, not state jurisdiction. Because of this, patent attorneys can advise clients on all patent-related matters anywhere in the United States, no matter state court or bar association rules.
Patent attorneys must register with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Attorneys interested in this field of law must meet a stringent list of requirements to become registered as a patent attorney. Registering involves taking and passing an exam that measures the applicant's knowledge of USPTO procedures, ethics rules, federal statutes and regulations. The 100-question, six-hour, multiple-choice test usually includes a majority of questions on the correct way to draft and handle a U.S. patent or international application. To pass the exam, the applicant must correctly answer 70 percent of the questions.
In addition to the exam, the USPTO requires that all patent
attorney candidates obtain sufficient scientific and technical
training. This usually includes a bachelor's degree in an area
of natural science or technology.
Paralegal Certification and Licensure
Although lawyers assume ultimate responsibility for legal work, they often delegate many of their tasks to paralegals. About seven out of 10 paralegals work for law firms. Others work for corporate legal departments and government agencies. Statistics in The Occupational Outlook Handbook project that employment will grow much faster than average, as employers try to reduce costs by hiring paralegals to perform tasks once done by lawyers.
Most entry-level paralegals have an associate degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree coupled with a certificate in paralegal studies. Some employers train paralegals on the job. Hundreds of paralegal training programs are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Although many employers do not require such approval, graduation from an ABA-approved program can enhance employment opportunities.
At present, there are no mandatory requirements for paralegal certification or licensing. However, certification is recommended because in some highly competitive markets employers prefer or require it.
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)established standards for certification requiring various combinations of education and experience. Paralegals meeting these standards are eligible to take a two-day examination administered three times each year at regional testing centers. Candidates who successfully complete the exam may use the designation Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP). Other professional recognition available to paralegals:
- Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) administered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Those who pass this examination may use the designation Registered Paralegal (RP).
- American Alliance Certification Program (AACP) administered by the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI). Any paralegal with five years of work experience and various combinations of education and experience is eligible to apply for certification. No examination is necessary.
Professional Advancement Opportunities
Once they've received the appropriate licensing and certification, lawyers have many options from which to choose a new career path. Climbing the ladder in a law practice to partnership, branching out solo into a separate individual practice or specializing in a niche market are some options to becoming a salaried attorney. Non-traditional positions also provide an alternative to private practice that utilizes legal training and experience. By passing the bar, the biggest hurdle on the road to becoming a career attorney is behind you. The field of practice for a lawyer is enormous since every facet of a person's life, from cradle to grave, is in some way affected by legal considerations.
Most new lawyers begin their careers in salaried positions. They usually start as associates and work with more experienced lawyers or judges. Advancement to a partnership in a firm or branching out into a solo practice is an individual choice that requires honest assessment of personal skills and preferences, research, market analysis and risk assessment. There is also a wealth of potential in government positions, and up- and-coming areas of practice likewise exist in health care, elder, energy and environmental markets.
Many career choices may require additional training. Advanced law degrees, such as an L.L.M. in Taxation, may be desirable for those planning to specialize, research, or teach. A joint degree in business management or public administration is another avenue to advancement that generally requires only an additional semester or year of study.
Salaries of experienced lawyers vary widely according to the type, size and location of employers. Solo practitioners generally earn less than partners in larger firm. Keep in mind that those in private practice must provide their own health/life benefits and retirement contributions, whereas the salaried lawyer generally receives benefits in addition to salary.
Pundits predict that heavy competition for firm openings should continue for some time, due to the economy and the large number of students graduating from law schools every year. Thus, an attorney's plan for success should include non-traditional areas of law, as well as the possibility of relocation.
Job categories offering non-traditional legal positions include:
- Bar Associations
- Courts (administration)
- Human Resources
- Law Librarian
- Legal Publishing
- Public Interest
Governmental job sources offer a broad source of legal positions on local, state and federal levels. State Web sites have job information, and federal jobs and employment information, including Department of Justice postings, can be accessed through the Office of Personnel and Management's website at USAJobs.gov.
On a positive note, advanced law degrees and experience in a specialty do provide an edge over the competition when it comes to opportunities in alternative disciplines. These jobs may not require a law degree, certainly, but skills learned in law school can enhance and enrich any position.What is the bottom line? Whether launching a practice or choosing an entirely different dream job, staying current with educational requirements and professional certifications will make that legal education pay off.
Legal Industry: Training & Continuing Education [top]
Continuing education is the key to advancing your career in law. Simply by entering the legal profession, you have already committed to a life-long continuing education experience. New legislation, ever-changing laws, and mandatory CLE requirements for state licensure renewal keep professionals in the field constantly eyeing the books.
Whether employed as a law clerk, researcher, or a firm partner, career improvement starts through knowing where and how to pursue enlightenment.
Continuing Education for Lawyers
State Bar Associations
Each state houses a bar association, which offers a variety of continuing legal education (CLE) programs. Most states require professionals in the field of law to complete a certain number of course hours every few years in order to maintain their licenses. The American Bar Association Website has links to all state bars with their individual contact information.
This education provider has been in existence for more than 75 years. PLI programs aim to provide up-to-date legal techniques designed to provide a competitive professional edge. The organization offers live seminars throughout the year, each targeting specific sectors of the legal industry. PLI also provides online CLE, treatises, learning tools such as DVDs and MP3s, live Webcasts, handbooks and more.
Since most states require law professionals to fulfill mandatory continuing legal education credentials, PLI plans courses accordingly. Moreover, the organization provides lower priced programs geared toward helping newly admitted attorneys..
The largest voluntary professional organization in the world, the ABA strives to provide ongoing educational opportunities to its members, as well as assist its members in satisfying CLE requirements.
To that end, the American Bar Association Center for Continuing Legal Education (ABA-CLE) is the group's primary resource. Offering topnotch products and programs with nationwide applications, the Center, which is governed by the ABA Standing Committee on Continuing Legal Education, works closely with ABA experts, as well as with professionals on national and international levels. The following information is a sampling of what the ABA-CLE provides:
- ABA-CLE National Institutes. Packaged as live, in-person one- or two-day conferences, these institutes consist of meticulously produced continuing legal education seminars. Presented nationwide, the conferences combine lectures and workshops to provide critical information and one-of-a-kind networking opportunities for attorneys from every corner of the profession.
- ABA-CLE Teleconferences. These live teleconferences deliver continuing legal education over the phone. Running about 90 minutes, along with Q and A time, the sessions provide current CLE content dealing with key issues such as the latest court decisions. Participants may call a toll-free number from home, office or on the road to enroll. .
- Audio and Video Webinars Audio and video webcasting via the Internet allows practitioners to access both live and archived CLE programs. Faculty presenters use e-mail to interact with participants during the program.
- ABA-CLE P Self Study Online Programs. By combining text, video and audio via the Net, the Online Partner program offers an interactive environment that provides attorneys the opportunity to participate in educational programming at their convenience. ABA-CLE Books. These publications accompany every National and Regional Institute, Webcast and Teleconference. After the programs, they are available for purchase.
ABA-CLE Audio and Video Programs - on DVD, CD, video, and
audio CD. All National Institutes, Satellite Seminars, Video
Conferences and other ABA-CLE programs are available in these
electronic formats. Course materials and study guides typically
are included, and many are available as separate purchases.
Continuing Education for Paralegals
Paralegals are an essential component of the legal system. They need to keep their skills and legal knowledge current, just as attorneys do. Certified paralegals may need to meet state continuing legal education (CLE) requirements for maintaining certification, which may vary from state to state. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers CLE courses both online and at its live education convention, through webinars and through self-study. Discounts are offered to NALA members. Similarly, TheNational Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers CLE opportunities through online courses, seminars from various education providers, webinars and teleconferences.
Not all states require routine CLE for paralegals, but keeping certifications current may require periodic approved credits. A certified paralegal should check with the state of certification for specific renewal requirements.