The new career choice: the compliance attorney

By David A. Mata

Litigation or transaction? In most law schools, these are the two career options that you hear about from the first day of orientation. No ifs, ands, or buts, you have just two possible career paths. However, more recent law school grads are discovering a third option — the compliance attorney.

What is a compliance attorney? An exact definition is hard to pin down. A compliance attorney must bring more than just legal knowledge to a company. He or she will need to understand the fields of business management, human resources, and risk management. Why, then, wouldn’t a company simply hire a graduate with an MBA? The key to the compliance attorney’s superiority is that the attorney understands and anticipates the potential downstream legal ramifications of each issue before him or her.

For example, on a recent day I had to review an organization’s plan for complying with federal health insurance laws. After my review, the plan was to be submitted to the government. The plan listed the relevant risk areas, the internal investigation procedures, and the required disciplinary actions. On its face, it seemed to have covered all its bases. But one glaring problem stood out – the terminology.

The plan was rife with language that muddied its message. To a layperson, the words were plain as day. But to an attorney these words created hard and set obligations and pigeonholed activities in ways that were never intended. If something with the plan were to go wrong then this was the document that would end up in court, with litigators arguing over words using definitions supplied by their transactional counterparts. This potential nightmare would not have stood out to someone without a JD, and was solved with simple clarifications.

Another unique aspect of the compliance attorney is the way in which client interactions occur. A litigator is sought out when a problem has already happened, and a transactional attorney is summoned when a deal is in the works. But a compliance attorney comes in before such situations arise. Conducting business in accordance with governmental and contractual obligations can stave off future courtrooms visits, and sound financial fundamentals resulting from lower litigation fees can put off the need to seek investment knights to keep the doors open. The compliance attorney represents the legal frontline for many organizations.

A compliance attorney does not need to necessarily “practice law.” This distinction may scare off law students who daydream of future Supreme Court nominations. But an employer looking for knowledgeable staff who will reduce its legal risk by improving operations will not care about this distinction. Law students and lawyers often forget that what matters most to companies is the bottom line. Although licensed in my home state, I primarily work in a consulting capacity with clients across the country. While I might not be practicing law on many engagements, my legal training influences how I provide consulting help to clients.

Don’t just take it from me. The Health Care Compliance Association and the Society of Compliance and Ethics have seen a growing number of attorneys join their ranks. Health care is ground zero today for compliance due to the sector’s strong relationship with the government, but more industries are doing the math and realizing that investing in compliance attorneys upfront will reduce their need for litigation and transactional attorneys down the line.

How should a law student position him or herself for such an opportunity? A solid knowledge of contractual and administrative law is a must. Furthermore, an understanding of discovery rules and evidence is crucial for identifying risks before they manifest. Remember – each business has its own unique set of risks and rules. The prospect of someone who understands the industry and also understands its legal risks presents a solid investment for an organization.

An exact definition of what a compliance attorney does may never be possible, and perhaps that is the job’s biggest strength. I highly encourage law schools and law students to explore the world beyond litigation and transactions. You may be surprised at how limitless it is.

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David A. Mata is an associate at Aegis Compliance and Ethics Center, LLP in Chicago, Illinois. He received his LL.M. in health law with a compliance concentration from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and his JD from Tulane University Law School. He is licensed to practice law in Louisiana.