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The Difference Between Professional Certification and a Certificate Program

Often organizations that develop certificate programs incorrectly call them certification programs. Be an informed consumer and educate yourself about the important differences.

Professional certification is the voluntary process by which an entity grants a time-limited recognition and use of a credential to an individual after verifying that he or she has met predetermined and standardized criteria.The Accredited Legal Professional (ALP), Certified Legal Professionals (CLP) and Professional Paralegal (PP) are professional certifications.

certificate program is based upon a specialized topic of study. The participants of which receive a certificate after completing all course requisites and/or obtaining a particular goal. Note: This is not to be confused with the commonly used "certificate of attendance" given at the completion of many continuing education courses to validate attendance.

Our association offers three national certification exams, the ALP, CLP, and PP, and two education based certificates, the CLE Award and the Specialty Law Certificate. 

To clarify the distinction between certificate and certification a comparison chart has been provided below.** 

Certificate Certification
Results from the acquisition of education. Results from an assessment process.
For both newcomers and experienced professionals alike. Typically requires some amount of professional experience.
Awarded by educational program providers 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; 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 issue a document to hang on the wall. Typically results in a designation to use after one's name (ALP, CLP, PP.); may result in a document to hang or to keep in a wallet.
Is the end result; demonstrates knowledge of course content at the end of a set period in time. Has ongoing requirements in order to maintain; holder must demonstrate he/she continues to meet requirements. For example, ALPs, CLPs, and PPs are required to obtain 15 CLE credits to keep their certifications.
May provide 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., MS or PhD.
  • Certification is a process that results in credentials, e.g. ALP, CLP, PLS, or PP.
  • designation simply refers to the letters someone uses after their name (MD, PhD, ALP, CLP, PLS, PP).

*Reprinted by permission of the National Organization for Competency Assurance

**Adapted from University of Michigan's Certificate vs. Certification webpage; updated March 20, 2013

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