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How you can get a job in compliance on Wall Street

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Compliance specialists are among the most in-demand professionals on Wall Street.

While financial services firms cut front office and support jobs, compliance remains a stalwart of expansion. With scrutiny from regulators – not to mention legal and reputational risk – at an all-time high, banks, asset managers, broker-dealers and other financial institutions are expanding their compliance teams.

Goldman Sachs, for one, added nearly 3,000 people to its net headcount in 2015, an 8% increase on 2014, as part of the firm’s “significant investment in regulatory compliance,” according to Goldman CFO Harvey Schwartz.

“This is a great time to be in compliance, no matter what part of the spectrum [of financial services] you’re in,” said Amy Lynch, the president of FrontLine Compliance, a strategic consultancy. “Regulation and compliance are suddenly everyday terms, not four letter words.”

Getting your foot in the door

The demand for air-tight compliance is so high that it can be hard for hiring managers to find the people they are looking for with the right skill set.

That’s great news for experienced compliance officers, but how do you break into compliance in the first place?

Compliance is unlike accounting in the sense that there isn’t a straightforward career path that most people follow successfully.

“If you want to be an accountant or auditor, you major in accounting, you go to a career day at your college, and you meet with recruiters from the Big 4,” said Jack Kelly, managing director of the Compliance Search Group. “Compliance has been around for so long but its importance has increased dramatically of late.

“It’s not a direct line like other careers – it’s often haphazard in terms of how people get into it,” he said. “People work as a stock broker or an operations specialist then move into a compliance role.”

Getting a compliance qualification doesn’t necessarily mean you get into compliance. There are a lot out there including Global Association of Risk Professionals (GARP), the National Society of Compliance Professionals (NSCP) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Institute at Wharton’s Certified Regulatory and Compliance Professional (CRCP) designation. However, figures from our resume database suggest that a lot of compliance professionals in the U.S. still opt to pursue a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program instead of a specialist qualification.

Get a good undergraduate degree, skip the law degree

A lot of people think automatically about a legal background, but a J.D. is really not necessary for a compliance role at a bank or other financial services firm.

Even at the entry level, compliance specialists don’t just memorize regulations, policies and procedures and go over documentation – compliance roles are far more quantitative and complex than they used to be.

“I don’t believe we’ve produced enough qualified human beings to fill all of the compliance opportunities at banks going forward,” said Carol Hartman, executive vice president of recruitment firm DHR International. “It’s a big growth area, so raising your hand and saying you’re interested in a compliance role would be enough to attract the attention of recruiters.”

In terms of qualifications, rather than a law degree, Hartman believes that a Bachelor’s in mathematics, economics or decision sciences, taking a few accounting courses along the way, would be helpful for aspiring compliance professionals.

“For compliance at a bank, an undergraduate degree is plenty for an entry level job,” she said. “A lot of people have gotten into compliance from back-office support roles, which is a great way to get into that sort of work, doing operations, controls or back-office support at a broker-dealer or bank.’

Lynch agrees that an accounting or law degree is not necessary, certainly not for entry-level compliance positions. She recommends a Bachelor’s degree in general business management.

Our stats support the fact that the majority of compliance professionals either have only a Bachelor’s degree (25.2%) or a Bachelor’s and a law degree (27%). Less than 10% have a Master’s, while MBA was not as prominent, with just 6.5% of compliance professionals possessing one. Slightly more than 1% possess a Ph.D.

Photo credit: cigdemhizal/iStock/Thinkstock

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