Some of you went to law school knowing exactly what kind of lawyer you wanted to be when you grew up. You watched Law and Order or Boston Legal and decided that duking it out against an evil opponent in the courtroom (while engaging in inappropriate trysts on the side) is your thing. Or you may want to work on billion-dollar deals and attend fab closing dinners with high-level business executives. If so, you probably won’t find this article very useful.
Others of you went to law school because, well, the pre-med thing didn’t pan out and you figured there was nothing better to do. Or maybe you went because your parents really, really wanted you to, but arguing in court sounds intimidating and you really don’t care about negotiating fancy-pants deals. Or maybe the only thing you really care about at this point is landing a decent-paying job. And if it involves some upward mobility and you can also make use of your law school degree, well heck, that would be a plus. If any of this describes you, read on….
Why consider a compliance job? For one thing, it’s a fast track into an in-house position. You can avoid the hours and pressure of working at a large law firm for several years (assuming you can even get into one in this crazy market) and then competing against hundreds of candidates for a small number of in-house positions once you reach your fourth or fifth year. Instead, at many companies, you can go in-house straight out of law school as an entry-level compliance officer.
Compliance has also more recently become a hot focus for in-house legal departments. According to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s 2013 Chief Legal Officer Survey, CLOs identified ethics and compliance as the number one most important category of issues during the past year, as well as for the next year. The second and third categories they listed — regulatory/governmental changes and information privacy — also have strong ties to compliance.
If you’re interested in learning a lot about the business side, you’ll get plenty of that in compliance, which involves a little bit of law and a lot of working with and advising business clients. And since you end up gaining a lot of knowledge on the company’s business, you’ll have a decent shot at moving around later on to other departments, such as operations and risk.
However, if you decide to remain in compliance, your law degree will be a plus. Generally, lawyers who are compliance officers tend to be favored for advancement opportunities over non-lawyers because much of compliance relies on an understanding of laws and regulations.
So, what exactly compliance officers do? The role differs from company to company, but your main responsibilities include working on corporate policies, processes, risk assessments, training, and monitoring company and employee behavior. These practices are based on laws, regulations, best practices in the industry, and pretty much whatever else the company decides to force their employees to do or not do. You work with the other business units to figure out practical ways to implement the company’s policies.
You would also review documents and actual business practices for compliance with policies, laws, and regulations. You would eventually become the go-to person for questions and issues on the laws applicable to your company and corporate policies. If your organization operates in multiple regions or actively acquires other companies, you may end up traveling around the world in order to provide compliance training and information at the other locations.
The downsides of working in compliance? Coming straight out of law school, you’ll get paid a lot less than you would at a large law firm. But then again, there aren’t many places that match large law firm compensation. While it’s difficult to discuss compensation without talking specifics — region, size of company, type of industry, etc. — the salary would be probably similar to what you’d get starting at a small law firm straight out of law school.
Another limitation you should keep in mind is that won’t be easy to transition to legal work, if that’s what you decide you really want to do. Not that it will be impossible, but most law firms and legal departments will want to hire someone with more specific legal experience. It would probably be easier to find an attorney position at a company where the attorneys cover both legal and compliance responsibilities (i.e., in one department), as opposed to a company that has separate legal and compliance divisions.
Another limitation is that you actually have to work with and influence the behavior of the entire company, from HR to IT to Finance to Communications. You can’t just give your advice and then let the business decide what it wants to do. That would be like getting the Titanic to avoid an iceberg. And, if your company ever experiences any compliance violations, it is your head on the platter.
Finally, compliance has suffered somewhat of a negative stigma. People may not consider you a “real” lawyer. Others may think that the work is insufferably boring. (Of course some people think all lawyers’ jobs are insufferably boring.) Or they may treat you how people tend to treat police officers — they behave and play nice in your presence but you’re never a part of the “in” crowd. As compliance continues to grow in priority and focus for most companies however, these attitudes seem to be shifting toward a greater respect and appreciation for the compliance function.
If you’re interested in pursuing this area, keep in mind that the compliance function really differs from company to company and industry to industry, so be sure to get the details for whatever position you’re looking into. Are there other pros and cons of going into compliance after law school? Email me or share your thoughts below.
P.S. Starting next week, Moonlighting will be posted on Tuesdays instead of Fridays, so see y’all then!
ACC’s CLO Survey Looks to Past and Future of Legal Department Priorities [Corporate Counsel]
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.