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Challenges in Transitioning from the Law to Compliance

The legal profession is undergoing significant changes. With an over-supply of attorneys and lower profits, lawyers are looking for new angles to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

In contrast, the compliance profession has grown in importance and opportunities. Unlike attorneys, companies are hiring compliance officers and salaries are increasing. As the demand for lawyers declines, more legal professionals are transitioning into the compliance field. In most cases, this trend makes sense.

Lawyers can make excellent compliance officers. However, a compliance officer does not have to be a lawyer. In the end, a compliance officer has to be intelligent, hard working, and most importantly, has to possess integrity and strong interpersonal skills.

Lawyers who transition to compliance have to adopt a new frame of reference. A lawyer has to define legal risks for the company’s activities. Legal decision-making is a lot different from business ethics, and lawyers have to understand the difference. There is a fine distinction between making business decisions based on legal principles or ethical principles. A company may decide not to move forward with a decision that is legal but violates its ethical principles.

Compliance is a function that is premised on proactive strategies to promote the company’s culture, its code of conduct, and overall compliance with the law and the company’s code of conduct. An effective compliance officer balances inspiration, education, business acumen and enforcement and discipline. A lawyer’s portfolio is not as broad, and does not include as many proactive functions, such as monitoring and auditing employee conduct.

Lawyers should be familiar with the compliance function because they share a close working relationship. Sometimes CLOs do not have a positive relationship with CCOs; it is a sure sign of a poor culture when CLOs and CCOs do not work together effectively.

Legal skills can come in handy for a lawyer in transition to a compliance position. A compliance officer who is a lawyer can apply his/her training to a variety of issues that arise. While these skills can be helpful, a compliance officer has to devote more attention to core compliance functions.

Lawyers who become compliance officers have to recognize that the company’s culture is its most important asset. A new compliance officer has to learn how to monitor and promote the company’s culture. This requires the compliance officer to adopt creative strategies to survey, measure and monitor the company’s culture. Legal skills are not intrinsically part of this function.

To be effective, lawyers and compliance officers share an important trait: they should be problem solvers. Lawyers and compliance officers have to be viewed by the business as effective problem solvers, and not viewed as a “Dr. No,” someone who routinely tells the business they cannot proceed with a proposed course of action. Lawyers and compliance officers depend on their relationships with business clients, and a compliance officer cannot succeed without the trust of business colleagues.

Lawyers and compliance officers will continue to cross-pollinate. There is a natural synergy between the functions. Lawyers and compliance officers have to understand each other’s roles and functions. As more lawyers move into the compliance function, the professions will continue to learn from each other and work effectively together.

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