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When Deciding on Your Career, Should You Pick Compliance or Practice?

Paige Bostic

When Deciding on Your Career, Should You Pick Compliance or Practice?
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I have been a barred attorney for a whopping total of 14 months as of January 2022. But within that short time, I have had the pleasure of both taking a dip in the pool of compliance and being pushed into the deep end of practicum. I graduated at the beginning of the pandemic and was lucky enough to maintain a compliance offer. At the time, my mind-set was to count my blessings instead of asking what realm would suit me best? Thus, after I took the bar, I happily began my career in compliance at a wonderful firm that was rich in resources and full of wonderful people. But I wanted more, not because compliance was so terrible but because the work did not suit my passions or my personality. Fast-forward to today: I have left that wonderfully large corporate firm to work at a thriving small firm as an education defense attorney, and I am loving every minute of it.

Because of my experience in both realms, I often get asked, “What is better? A career in compliance or a career practicing law?” And in my most noble of lawyer voices, I say, “It depends.” Because it does! On a multitude of factors. I can give you my “why” to help orient your decision, but ultimately the question requires self-reflection and weighing your priorities. Given that we lawyers love a good factor analysis test, consider these three factors when weighing your options to enter into compliance or to practice law.

Know Thyself

The most important factor is knowing your personality type. What environment do you best thrive in? What is your primary skill set? The answer may come in traditional formats such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator or lesser-known personality tests. Or you can assess yourself intuitively by reflecting on your personal experience. Either way, this process requires inward reflection.

Compliance, in my view, is more isolating than practice because your job is a functioning piece of a whole. So even though your work is a domino in the cause-and-effect chain, it is self-contained and not part of a true collaboration. Think of it like an office potluck: Everyone is assigned a dish to complete the components of the meal; however, each component is something whole and different. While each dish might complement the others, they do not necessitate each other’s existence. If you prefer work with minimal interaction, then compliance is wonderful.

Comparatively, legal practice requires you to do 27 different things at once, seemingly well, to zealously represent your client. Keeping the same analogy, if compliance is a potluck, then the practice of law is a chef’s kitchen in a Michelin-starred restaurant—each stage of the meal is dependent on the other. In practice, if you subscribe to the firm model, each component affects the other—there is true collaboration and a melding of minds to create one product. This is great for those of you who like the marriage of teamwork and independence. Practice allows for constant interaction, even if your work is more focused on transactions.

As an aside, don’t believe the lie that all extroverts must be litigators and all introverts must either be transactional attorneys or in compliance. There is a niche for any personality type in the law. Focus more on your working style—I prefer to work with people during each stage instead of coming together at the end.

Consider Your Lifestyle Goals

Another contributing factor is lifestyle. How much free time do you need? In compliance, I worked a traditional 9–5 schedule (actually, in my case, 8–4), and I had ample time to pursue my hobbies. Plus, I worked at a firm that believed in self-care, so on top of a great schedule, I had 20+ days of paid time off. However, as a young attorney with no children, or furry children, coming out of the high-stress 24/7 environment that is law school, I was flummoxed. I had to rediscover my passions again because for so long my “passion” was finishing the assigned reading before a lecture. Compliance gives you the space to pursue things outside of compliance.

As an attorney, I technically have “free time,” but is it as productive? No, not at all. Much of that free time is spent watching Disney movies. My schedule now is 8–5, but 8–5 in the world of billables is not the same as 8–5 in the business world. That is, I might work 8–5 but perhaps only 6 of my hours that day can be billed to the client. The hour I took for lunch and the other 2 hours I dedicated to business development do not count toward my billable total. Practice is more consuming than compliance, but loving what I do makes the trade-off well worth it for me.

Let’s talk numbers. Salaries vary depending on the field and demand, but I made under six figures starting in compliance, and I make over six figures starting out in practice. Still, let’s just say I have yet to trade in my trusty Honda Civic for a luxury something.

Consider Your Career Goals

Lastly, what are your future goals? Put more abstractly, what is your why? Do you want to be a federal judge doling out opinions, or do you want to be general counsel of a nonprofit? Maybe you want to get out of practice entirely and do diversity and inclusion work at your former law school. Whatever the case may be, think about how this career choice will help you reach your primary goal.

Be aware that sometimes the paths we choose do not make sense as we take them. For example, I started as a third-grade teacher, took a hard left into law school, stumbled into compliance, and got rerouted to my original destination as an education defense attorney. Each step built on the others even though I had no idea how they would at the time.

If you don’t know what the future holds, reach out to the vast legal community on LinkedIn. I sent several messages to people I admire on LinkedIn, some of which were left with no reply. A few people left email addresses and Zoom meeting IDs. This led me to have an illuminating conversation with a woman who is the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company. She gave me some of the best career advice I’ve received to date. She asked me to reflect on what I really wanted to do and where I actually wanted to be, and then she said, “Tell me how your current position is going to get you there.” Of course, I was speechless. I couldn’t think of a pathway. Then she responded to my silence by giving me homework: “You’ve got a year to find a place where you can grow. I expect a report back.”

The moral of the story is that I followed directions, I prayed a lot, and I am now one of those people who actually enjoy what they do. I get to open schools, help students, meet with lawmakers, and make a difference. I also still find mental solace in Disney movies. (We all have our things. Leave me alone.) The point to all of this is that there is no correct answer to which field is better because it all depends on what feeds you. I found what feeds me, and I still have room for dessert.


My hope for you is that you take in the articles, the coffee meetings, the Zoom invites, and look inward. I believe you do not have to hate your career and you do not have to conform to a box that is junior associate or bust. You can do anything with a law degree, so spin your deductive reasoning skills into a workable career. There is a position waiting for you. Or, better yet, create your own.