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10 Jun

What Is Compliance and Why Is It a Hot Alternative Law Career?

According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of compliance is “conformity in fulfilling official requirements.”1 But it takes more than five words to adequately define “what is compliance” in the corporate world.

What is corporate compliance and why does it exist?

In the United States, a bevy of government and corporate scandals in the 1970s led to the enactment of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) of 1977, which outlawed bribery of foreign officials.2 That was the beginning of a nationwide shift toward increased corporate accountability, stricter regulations and enforcement, and encouragement of integrity-based corporate culture.

Over the past five decades and counting, the government has held corporations and their employees increasingly accountable for noncompliant and unethical behavior through acts such as the FCPA, the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002, which protects shareholders from fraudulent financial practices by public corporations,3 and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, also known as the Financial Stability Act of 2010.4 These sweeping regulations have changed the way corporations function in the United States.

So what is corporate compliance as it exists now? In a nutshell, corporate compliance processes are designed to ensure a company and its employees follow all applicable laws, regulations, and ethical practices.5 Corporate compliance programs are designed to ensure compliance on two levels:

  • Companies and their employees must comply with external rules and regulations that govern their industry
  • Companies must ensure that employees comply with internal policies and rules

Compliance may seem like a “necessary evil” to some corporations, as it requires a meticulously developed, organized, implemented, and measured compliance program. But Forbes contributor Thomas Sehested posited that taking a systematic approach to compliance will benefit companies in the long run.

“The upfront expenditures for an integrated compliance approach using advanced technology will end up costing less than the fines, fees and damage to brand reputation that can result from violations...Having an organized and systematic approach is essential. It will ensure that nothing falls through the cracks and that there is total visibility at all times, freeing compliance professionals to work on high-impact projects that protect the business,” Sehested wrote.6

So who will steer this systematic approach at a particular company? An effective compliance program requires a savvy professional at the helm. While the requirements and skills necessary for compliance positions can vary greatly by industry, company, and role, successful compliance professionals have a few skills in common.

Why Legal Skills Are an Asset in Compliance

Any compliance officer, analyst, or manager worth their salt will be able to thoroughly analyze industry regulations and ethical standards, interpret them based on their company’s makeup and needs, and then determine how to achieve compliance within the scope of business operations.7 In addition to possessing unparalleled analytical and comprehension skills, compliance professionals are resourceful problem solvers who can think on their feet, build relationships, and communicate complex material in layman’s terms.

Essentially, many of the same skills that render someone an adept lawyer translate directly to the compliance field. Compliance can be a rewarding alternative law career for individuals with a mind for research and analysis, a knack for communication, and the patience to build and measure an effective ethics program from the ground up.

Consider a Career in Compliance

The Online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) in Corporate Compliance from Santa Clara University School of Law was designed specifically for professionals who could benefit from legal knowledge but don’t necessarily want to be a lawyer. The Online MLS imparts legal skills, Silicon Valley-influenced solutions, and specific technical abilities related to compliance and risk management to help you land a position such as compliance officer, which U.S. News & World Report ranked No. 22 in best business jobs.8

View the curriculum for more information, and learn how a master’s in legal studies can impact your work in compliance.


1. Retrieved on May 31, 2019, from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compliance
2. Retrieved on May 31, 2019, from justice.gov/criminal-fraud/foreign-corrupt-practices-act
3. Retrieved on May 31, 2019, from investopedia.com/terms/s/sarbanesoxleyact.asp
4. Retrieved on May 31, 2019, from cftc.gov/sites/default/files/idc/groups/public/@swaps/documents/file/hr4173_enrolledbill.pdf
5. Retrieved on May 31, 2019, from powerdms.com/blog/what-corporate-compliance-is-why-compliance-is-important/
6. Retrieved on May 31, 2019, from forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2018/07/10/compliance-can-make-or-break-your-companys-reputation/#1614abb175a4
7. Retrieved on May 31, 2019, from investopedia.com/personal-finance/how-to-get-a-job-compliance/
8. Retrieved on June 3, 2019, from money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/compliance-officer