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A Look at Compliance—the Best Legal Career You’re Not Considering

For such a rewarding and in-demand alternative to “traditional” legal careers, compliance has been flying under the radar.

At least, it was.

More and more lawyers are seeking new opportunities and challenges in the compliance sector, as these New England Law | Boston alumni can attest...

A fateful encounter at an alumni event changed Rochelle Levy’s whole career trajectory.

A 2010 graduate of New England Law, Levy entered law school interested in litigation. She went to the annual Alumni Career Forum her first semester expecting to connect with folks in those roles. But then she met an attorney who went from working as a federal prosecutor to a compliance attorney. To say her interest was piqued is an understatement—she decided to switch gears to compliance too.

And that attorney ultimately “became a great mentor throughout [her] career,” Levy says. “We’re still in touch.”

Today, Levy’s a director in compliance at BNY Mellon Investment Management in New York City, one of the world’s leading investment management organizations and one of the top U.S. wealth managers. But Levy isn’t the only lawyer making the leap to compliance.

New laws and regulations are constantly spurring the demand for compliance professionals, creating a wealth of job opportunities for lawyers looking for an “alternative” career. Compliance also allows lawyers to marry their legal skills with other interests and strengths, like a passion for health care. Add in the good work-life balance, solid salaries, and other benefits, and it’s no wonder compliance is becoming a hot legal specialty, as many New England Law alumni can attest.

Inside the Compliance Office

For Levy, compliance is the practical application of law to the business process. “I’m part process engineer and part legal translator,” she says.

Of course, defining precisely what compliance attorneys do can be elusive, and responsibilities depend on the role and sector. In general, they must understand business and risk management and ensure employees do what’s required as well as what’s ethical.

“It is very regulatory in nature, and it means following the rules, policies, and procedures of multiple legal and administrative authorities,” says Rowena Calderon Spigarelli ’02, chief compliance officer at RWJ Barnabas Health. “In my particular area of practice, health care compliance, it includes following the rules of the government bodies and entities—federal and state.”

Levy has been in her current role at BNY Mellon since March 2019, having worked in compliance since 2011 for such companies as JPMorgan Chase and State Street. She says she enjoys the variety in her responsibilities and the ability to work closely with other departments. “I’m a people person and a problem solver, so being able to roll up my sleeves with Operations and also analyze regulatory interpretations with Legal is a lot of fun.”

Given her litigation experience, Levy understands “the realities of litigation and enforcement and knows when something is urgent or important or both,” she says. “There is also the ability to translate the regulation and be a go-between with the business and legal, making things easier for both sides.” Lawyers familiar with litigation and business law are well positioned for new opportunities in the burgeoning compliance arena, she says.

The Compliance Boom

Given its wide reach and relevance, it’s no surprise that compliance is booming, especially in such areas as financial services, health care, and government. The ever changing regulatory and technology landscape keeps compliance professionals on their toes as well.

“Technology allows us all to function with a complexity that didn’t exist when many regulations were put in place, and it creates many questions of practical applicability that are matters of first impression,” says Levy. “Think of data collection, complex computer programs, global businesses—these all bring new, interesting questions to old regulations. And as regulators adopt more rules to adapt to this new environment, there is a greater need for compliance employees to ensure that a business is in line with expectations.”

Another factor fueling growth stems from organizational leaders looking to get ahead of the curve with regulations, building up their compliance programs proactively. “It is beneficial to have an effective, robust, and proactive program rather than a mandated program under the strict scrutiny of the government as a result of a settlement,” says Spigarelli.

Like Levy, Spigarelli did not attend law school with the goal of becoming a compliance officer. She’s been practicing health care compliance since 2005, but she’s a nurse by trade. She was working as an attorney in a law firm when she decided to return to the health care setting in a non-clinical role. When she spotted a job posting for a compliance associate for a health care system, the job description seemed like a good fit, one melding her nursing and legal background. Indeed, the way compliance delves into multiple disciplines, skill sets, and industries is often a big part of its appeal…

New Opportunities for Lawyers

As effective communicators and problem solvers, lawyers can leverage their legal training in compliance, even though a law degree may not be required. In fact, compliance is often not technically a legal role, and compliance professionals typically do not provide legal opinions or represent their firms. Rather, the role of the compliance officer, for example, is to educate and audit, enforce the rules, and foster an ethical work environment where employees feel empowered to voice concerns without fear of retaliation, says Spigarelli.

That being said, if you’re a lawyer in a compliance role, you still need “to stay abreast of the law and industry updates, including legal settlements applicable to your area of concentration, so that you can partner with key stakeholders in the corporation and provide education about the high-risk regulatory areas and prevent issues proactively in those areas,” Spigarelli says. “Knowledge of operations within a particular industry is a significant part of being a successful compliance officer.”

Compliance positions are also often JD preferred, says Dan Crouch ’95, director of ethics and compliance for Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. A certified health care compliance professional with experience in health care fraud, waste and abuse programs, and corporate integrity agreements, Crouch entered the compliance space as a military attorney after law school. Aside from litigating cases, compliance was part of every job he had in the military. He left active duty in the U.S. Navy in 2013 and worked as a contractor in Afghanistan for the Department of State. When he returned to the U.S., he looked for private-sector jobs.

“Compliance felt like a natural transition from the military and operating in environments like Afghanistan, particularly in areas of investigations,” says Crouch, who has hundreds of investigations under his belt. “Often compliance people are involved in internal investigations, whether it’s involving leaders in the company who have committed personal misconduct or whether they are trying to assess risks based on business operations. They are looking internally to figure out if there is a problem.”

The Evolution of Compliance

Twenty-five years ago, law school grads did not aspire to become compliance professionals, says Craig Bennett ’94, vice president and chief compliance officer for the Boston Medical Center Health System. He specializes in the administrative side of compliance and deals with privacy, building, pharmacy, and research, as well as guidelines for policy and procedures to “ensure we are doing the right things [and] have a plan in place to comply with rules and regulations.”

Bennett says he too rather stumbled into the field because many of his jobs had compliance components. In state government, he worked for the Department of Revenue, Child Support Enforcement. When he moved into the private sector insurance industry, he worked with regulators. While working at John Hancock, the HIPAA privacy rules went into effect, and he was recruited into health care, where he’s worked for more than fifteen years.

Boston Medical Center Health System has become something of a New England Law hub: two alumni work in the privacy office and another alumnus is focused on conflict of interest in industry standards. “I sit back and say, ‘Oh, they come at this with a bit more focus than I did when I graduated,’” Bennett says. “It’s interesting to have seen that evolution.”

Preparing for a Career in Compliance

Compliance roles may come in lots of shapes and sizes, but these alumni agree: corporations prefer JDs with practical experience under their belts.

“Knowledge of operations in the particular industry is a significant part of being a successful compliance officer,” Spigarelli says. “Get as much practical and hands-on experience as you can.”

As for the next generation of compliance professionals, alumni say law schools are at a crossroads in preparing students for compliance roles. (In fact, in 2019 New England Law launched a Compliance and Risk Management certificate program.)

“I think sometimes law schools get a little uncomfortable, because many compliance roles don’t ‘practice law,’” says Crouch. “While my most recent compliance roles were not ‘legal’ roles, my legal training is absolutely instrumental to what I do. You need to understand how laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act work before you can determine whether your company’s programs adequately address those risks.

“It never hurts to have a JD.”

Learn more about studying compliance in law school.