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Compliance Exercises

Counter-apropos of my last post comes this article in Corporate Counsel magazine about the need for an independent Chief Compliance Officer in most corporations. The article presupposes general agreement that having such a position is critical to “elevate compliance and improve corporate governance.” And I suppose it is. But is it critical for what really important in a corporation?

You know, doing business?

And growing that business?

There’s no question that having a Chief Compliance Officer will help tick the boxes when it comes to corporate governance. But it runs the risk of glorifying the grocery clerk mentality, the lording of form over substance. Unlike every other C-level officer, this putative Chief Compliance Officer is focused on something wholly apart from the business and its goals: complying with the dictates of government. Compliance bears within its genes the potential for mission creep. Just as the regulator inevitably seeks to expand the scope of that which is regulated, the compliance officer lives with the danger of seeing ever-more ways that laws – and, critically, interpretations of laws – can be complied with. This is especially true if “compliance” is unmoored from legal, which should, at least in theory, be laying a claim to helping the business grow.

An example: My first General Counsel job was with a regional cellular company, shortly after the Telecom Act threw the mobile wireless industry into deregulation. A compliance officer would have told my board that we couldn’t possibly sell wireless phones and rate plans on a bundled basis. That was the conservative, “compliance-centric” interpretation of the regulations, which were in a state of flux at the time. It was the approach taken by our competitor. To me, young and unburdened with a career spent working for the telephone company, it was lunacy. Of course we could sell bundles, and if the regulators came around asking questions, we had a perfectly good explanation for them. An explanation that was supported by our good faith interpretation of the law and consumer interest. So we bundled away, and took a ton of market share. After nearly a year, our competitor followed suit.

I think about that often when considering the damage a compliance-first attitude can cause a company. There’s so much grey area, and so many ways to find a “compliance solution” that prevents business from happening. There’s also the very real danger that by focusing solely on ticking off the compliance officer’s checklist the company will miss bigger, more amorphous legal problems.

There may be industries where a robust – perhaps even independent – compliance program is called for. But those industries where abuses have been at their worst (financials, I’m looking at you) have never suffered from a lack of people focused on compliance. While having a lot of grocery lists will help prevent everyday lawbreaking, it’s not proof against more systemic problems. And in the meantime, it carries a very real cost in risk of loss to business focus. Far better, then, to have someone in the legal department who is focused on compliance, but whose prescriptions are ultimately filtered through the more practical hand of the GC.

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