As compliance professionals enjoy the rise of their profession, lawyers are sensing a decline in importance. I am hearing from compliance professionals a new and disturbing trend – companies are requiring compliance professionals to be trained attorneys.
Since I am a lawyer, I know I should just repeat the party line and argue that compliance professionals have to be lawyers. I cannot come to the legal profession’s defense. It is an unfair requirement to impose on the compliance profession.
Many lawyers are smart; some are not. Many compliance officers are smart; some are not. Whether or not compliance professionals are trained lawyers, is irrelevant.
Lawyers can be very valuable to a company – so can compliance professionals. There is nothing about learning the law that is essential to work in compliance. My hunch is that lawyers are slyly communicating to company officials that compliance professionals should only be lawyers.
A chief compliance officer needs to have a diverse set of talents. They have to focus on a corporate organization, understand the risks and design and implement appropriate policies and procedures to mitigate risks.
Aside from this basic set of requirements, CCOs have: to be organized; understand corporate business needs and operations; appeal to individual motivations; design and modify internal processes; understand technology capabilities and limitations; and know the law.
Legal professionals have a different set of professional talents. They have to understand the client’s needs; analyze legal issues applicable to the company’s business operations; and provide important guidance on navigating legal risks.
Lawyers do not help themselves by arguing that CCOs should be restricted to trained lawyers. This argument is so obviously self-serving that it exposes the inherent insecurity facing the legal profession today.
Lawyers want to take over the compliance profession and make a very simplistic argument — compliance means legal compliance, and they are in the unique position of understanding exactly what legal compliance requires.
My distinction between the two functions is based on a common sense explanation. In a company, lawyers are important for defining the boundaries of the highway – where the traffic lines are located and where the boundaries of legal and illegal conduct is drawn.
CCOs have a different responsibility – they are dedicated to defining processes to ensure that the company stays within the defined lanes and legal boundaries. I know my analogy is simplistic but I believe there are significant distinctions between the two functions.
CCOs can be lawyers. Sometimes that may be an advantage, depending on the role of the CCO in a company. However, a CCO should never be required to be a lawyer.
CCOs should not spend too much time on this issue. If CCOs respond and argue against the legal profession, it is an unnecessary distraction from more important issues.
CCOs have to keep their eyes on the ball. They have a lot of professional challenges and need to advance the profession by implementing effective ethics and compliance programs. For now, they just need to ignore the legal profession.