Study Law to Advance Compliance Career?

The other day I was speaking with a compliance professional who had taken a few years to pursue other ventures, and is now looking to get back into the field. She’s been having some frustrations with her job search, and asked: Is there a new trend of companies demanding a law degree for compliance work? Would it be wise for her to return to law school for a non-JD program if she wants to resume her career? 

That led us to a conversation about the merits of getting a law degree to work in corporate compliance. Even if you did need that credential to succeed in compliance in the past, we wondered — will a law degree carry that same importance in the future, given how the field is changing? 

I’m not so sure. Hear me out.

When some incident of corporate misconduct happens, yes, expertise as a lawyer is great. But that expertise mostly helps you pinpoint the exact nature of the violation and potential liability. If you have the right experience, you might also be skilled enough to negotiate with prosecutors to reach a settlement over the misconduct.

That’s all fine unto itself, but if the misconduct in question is significant, you’re probably going to hand off the matter to outside counsel anyway. They’re more experienced at investigations, they have the requisite objectivity, and they’re more savvy at dealing with federal prosecutors than you are. 

So a compliance officer doesn’t necessarily need to be a lawyer, able to investigate allegations of misconduct personally. He or she only needs the good judgment to know when to hand off a misconduct matter to the lawyers (either internally to the legal department, or externally to outside counsel). 

Now consider things from the board of directors’ perspective. The board’s priority won’t be to know precisely what went wrong with a specific incident. The board will want to know how the company plans to reduce the likelihood of similar incidents in the future. It will want to know about failures in business processes that allow compliance failures to happen, and the extent of compliance risk. 

In other words, the board will want to know about the risk of misconduct incidents at scale. It will want to understand the threats to good conduct at the enterprise level, and assurance that the company has tools and techniques to reduce that risk at an enterprise level. 

That’s not a matter of good legal knowledge; it’s a matter of good data governance. So if a mid-career professional is going to invest time and money to burnish your credentials, there’s a strong argument to invest in the latter. 

I Do Like Lawyers!

To be clear, I don’t discourage anyone from going to law school if you love the law or want to be a lawyer. If that’s your desire in life, then by all means go to law school at any age. 

Likewise, if you’re a lawyer who drifts into corporate compliance and finds this line of work enjoyable — that’s terrific. Some of the smartest, most capable compliance officers I know are lawyers. It is tremendously useful experience for working in corporate compliance. 

Those groups of people, however, aren’t the same as my mid-career acquaintance. She is a college graduate who already worked in corporate compliance and wants to stay in this career, but now finds that quest difficult because so many companies insist on applicants having law degrees. 

So is getting a master’s type of law degree worth it for people in her circumstance — people who otherwise wouldn’t consider going to law school, but want to stay in the compliance field? 

Mid-career professionals do have plenty of law degree options. There’s the JM (juris master), MJ (master of jurisprudence), MLS (master of legal studies), and others. Those programs are geared for people who do have a college degree, but don’t want to enroll in law school for the traditional JD. These degrees are also not the same as the LLM, a graduate degree for those who do get the traditional JD and still want more. 

Lots of schools offer these non-JD law programs, both on campus and online. The question is whether the programs are worth the time and money. When you’re 24 and have decades of work experience ahead of you, a law school program of any sort can make sense. When you’re 44 with a mortgage, family, and maybe 20 years left in your career, that’s a different analysis.

Each of us has to make that analysis ourselves. I just start by asking: what will boards and senior executives need in the future, that they cannot easily get? 

Well, expertise in legal analysis exists in abundance. Expertise in data governance, analytics, and enterprise risk management is much more rare. There’s your answer.

Getting to the Purpose of Compliance

I do wonder about the types of companies my acquaintance saw, that were insisting on law degrees for compliance candidates. Do these companies see compliance as a subset of the legal department? Are they in lightly regulated industries, where compliance might be less mature of a function? 

I don’t know, but that would explain a lot. If an organization still sees “compliance” as about compliance with the law, then maybe recruiters or general counsels running the hiring effort convince themselves that law degrees are crucial to success. 

On the other hand, if an organization sees compliance as more of a function to help achieve good governance — to help steer large groups of people toward certain business objectives, amid an ocean of risk — then that organization should understand that compliance is more about inferring insight from data, and translating those insights into policies and procedures that drive better business performance

In that scenario, compliance officers work with the board and C-suite to govern things. Those groups will be looking for big, systemic solutions to fit big enterprises. A compliance officer will need to collect and synthesize tremendous amounts of information to do that. That’s something to think about as we ponder how to stay sharp in our careers.

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