Corporate Governance in an Era of Compliance

Sean J. Griffith is T.J. Maloney Chair and Professor of Law at Fordham Law School. This post is based on a recent article by Professor Griffith.

Compliance is the new corporate governance.

Much of what scholars and practitioners think of as core corporate governance—the oversight and control of internal corporate affairs— is now being subsumed by “compliance.” Although compliance with law and regulation is not a new idea, the establishment of an autonomous department within firms to detect and deter violations of law and policy is. American corporations are at the dawn of a new era: the era of compliance.

Over the past decade, compliance has blossomed into a thriving industry, and the compliance department has emerged, in many firms, as the co-equal of the legal department. Compliance is commonly headed by a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) with a staff, in large firms, of hundreds or thousands. Moreover, although the CCO reports to the board, compliance is not wholly subordinate to the board. Boards cannot neglect the compliance function or choose not to install and maintain the function on par with industry peers. Furthermore, once compliance officers generate information through monitoring and surveillance, it is beyond a reasonable board’s authority to stop them. Compliance is thus under the board, but its authority comes from somewhere else.

Unlike other governance structures, the origins of compliance are exogenous to the firm. The impetus for compliance does not come from a traditional corporate constituency. It does not come from shareholders, managers, employees, creditors, or customers. It comes from the government. Compliance is a de facto government mandate imposed upon firms by means of ex ante incentives, ex post enforcement tactics, and formal signaling efforts. Moreover, in imposing compliance on firms, the government is not simply making rules that firms must follow, as it does when it passes new laws and regulations, nor is it adjusting its traditional tools—the amount of enforcement and the size of sanctions—to assure compliance with existing law and regulation. Instead, through compliance, the government dictates how firms must comply, imposing specific governance structures expressly designed to change how the firm conducts its business.

At the level of theory, the contemporary compliance function subverts the notion that corporate governance arrangements both are and ought to be the product of a bargain between shareholders and managers. Compliance rewrites Ronald Coase’s famous passage on the internal organization of firms. Compliance officers come into an organization not necessarily (or not entirely) at the behest of an “entrepreneur-co-ordinator, who directs production,” but rather pursuant to the directive of a government enforcer. Seen through the prism of compliance, the corporation no longer resembles a nexus of contracts but rather a real entity, subject to punishment and rehabilitation at the pleasure of a sovereign. Compliance thus rejects mainstream accounts of the firm in favor of a much older theoretical account.

Moreover, because government interventions in compliance come not through the traditional levers of state corporate or federal securities law, but rather through prosecutions and regulatory enforcement actions, a different set of interests and incentives are at play. Compliance questions arise over what purpose or purposes the firm should serve and revives the “other constituencies” debate. Compliance also raises the question whether the authorities pressing for corporate reforms have the right incentives and the right information to do so. If they do not, the development of compliance may merely result in the imposition of inefficient governance structures on firms.

My article, Corporate Governance in an Era of Compliance, recently published in the William & Mary Law Review, aims to provide a comprehensive account of the compliance function and the various ways in which it challenges corporate law orthodoxy. It launches compliance as a field of inquiry for scholars of corporate law and corporate governance by pairing a thorough descriptive account of the contemporary compliance function with a normative account of the ways in which compliance challenges settled theories of the firm and upsets the political economy of corporate governance.

Compliance begs foundational questions of what the firm is and who the author of corporate governance arrangements ought to be. There is a way out of these uncomfortable questions—by limiting the government’s ability to impose compliance reforms through enforcement or by mandating disclosure of firms’ compliance arrangements—but we may not want to set these issues aside so quickly. The fundamental goal of the Article is thus to start the scholarly conversation on compliance and corporate governance, to raise the issues and problems posed by the contemporary compliance function without necessarily solving them. The Article therefore seeks to provoke scholarly debate and provide a framework for prosecutors, policymakers, and scholars of corporate law and corporate governance to engage the question of compliance.

The full article is available here.

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