Masters in Compliance Programs and Guide in 2020

If you’re thinking of working in the field of compliance, or simply want to add a compliance specialty to your law degree, you may consider a master’s in compliance. Although this degree is not needed to launch a career in compliance, it can provide you with a deep understanding of the field as well as the skills needed to guide companies across multiple industries, and of all sizes.

Compliance officers are responsible for making sure public and private organizations follow the laws and regulations governing their industries, making them key members of the businesses they work for. As long as there are laws, compliance professionals will be around. You can pursue this path if you’re interested in compliance law—you don’t need to be an attorney to do so.

This page will walk you through the basics of compliance, explain the different compliance degrees you can pursue, and introduce you to possible career opportunities.

What is Compliance?

In the most general sense, compliance means following an order or set of rules. For example, if you wear a seatbelt, you are complying with the law. 

There are many laws that govern the corporate, financial, and health care sectors among others. To comply with these external rules, organizations may set up internal rules. For example, a business may implement rules governing employee behavior in order to comply with anti-discrimination laws. A hospital may implement a rigorous hiring process to comply with laws regarding the education level of doctors and nurses.

Compliance professionals make sure their employer follows whatever set of rules is relevant to their sector. Every industry has different rules, so no two compliance jobs are exactly alike.

What is Corporate Compliance?

Corporate compliance refers to the internal set of rules that governs an organization. Often, a company’s management, board, and stakeholders have a hand in establishing these rules, intended to help the organization meet certain objectives and comply with external laws.

Many companies have a corporate compliance training program that lays out these policies and procedures. This program may include an employee code of conduct, safety guidelines, and steps for resolving compliance issues. 

What is Regulatory Compliance?

You can think of corporate compliance as internal, and regulatory compliance as external. Corporate compliance is about the set of rules a business creates for itself, while regulatory compliance refers to the laws imposed on a business by city, state, and federal governments. 

Some examples are advertising regulations, employment and labor laws, environmental regulations, and privacy laws. These laws are designed to safeguard consumers, uphold the rights of employees, and protect the environment. Organizations must follow these regulations to avoid penalties such as paying noncompliance fines, which can be very costly. 

What is Compliance in Healthcare?

Federal, state, and local governments establish rules to protect patients, increase access to health care, and keep health care professionals accountable. Providers often have their hands full, so compliance professionals provide oversight and make sure everyone follows the rules by creating and running compliance programs, training staff on compliance subjects, and addressing any compliance issues that come up. One of these rules is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patients’ privacy by keeping their health records confidential. 

Another law is the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH). Compliance professionals in the health care domain may also be responsible for enforcing regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). 

What is Compliance in Financial Services?

Compliance in financial services centers around protecting consumers and investors, keeping the markets fair and transparent, and reducing systemic risk and financial crime. Financial services are subject to laws around areas like advertising, communications, customer agreements, and due diligence.

Financial compliance professionals are responsible for making sure their employer follows all state and federal regulations. These include rules like the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA)—which aims to prevent money laundering—and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA)—designed to prevent identity theft. Just like in other sectors, violating these rules can result in major fines.

Master’s Degrees in Compliance

A Master of Compliance prepares you to run corporate compliance programs, advise on rules and regulations, and resolve compliance issues. In a compliance study program, you’ll learn about topics like legislation, risk assessment, and financial crime.

It’s important to know that there are multiple types of compliance degrees. You can get a Juris Master (JM), a Master of Science in Law, or a Master of Laws (LL.M.)—all of which offer a focus in compliance. You can also specialize in an industry, like healthcare or finance. 

Though a number of law schools offer master’s in compliance programs, it’s important to note that the American Bar Association (ABA) does not accredit nonlawyer degree programs. Even so, some master’s in compliance programs have been granted acquiescence by the ABA.   

In certain programs, master’s in compliance students can select and sit for compliance certification exams. These certifications may help to add value to the students’ degrees.

Master of Laws (LL.M.) in Compliance vs. Master’s Degrees in Legal Studies in Compliance

What’s the difference between an LL.M. and MLS? A Master of Laws (LL.M.) in compliance often requires you to have a legal background already, typically in the form of a Juris Doctor (J.D.). If you do not have a J.D. or equivalent law degree, you may want to consider getting a master’s degree in legal studies, such as a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) or Juris Master (JM) in compliance. 

Types of Compliance Degrees

Depending on the industry you plan to go into, you may want a master’s in compliance with a specific focus. Many schools offer concentrations in subjects like:

  • Healthcare regulation
  • Corporate compliance for businesses
  • Risk management in finance 
  • Law and governance
  • Financial regulation
  • Legal risk management and HR compliance

These degrees can be suitable for compliance professionals and lawyers who plan on working in the industries mentioned above. For example, someone with a concentration in financial risk management could work in business or finance. A corporate compliance focus could help someone run a company’s internal compliance program. Do your research to find a focus that aligns with your interests and career goals.

Curriculum and Courses Outcomes

Students begin their studies by taking foundational classes, such as Introduction to Corporate Compliance. In this class, you’ll learn about the main features of a successful corporate compliance program. 

Elective courses for a master’s in compliance, depends on the type of degree you decide to go with. You may take classes like: 

  • Compliance Risk Assessment. This class will teach you how to identify and evaluate compliance risks in different industries.
  • Private Sector Compliance with Public Regulations. In this class, you’ll study federal and state requirements for labor and employment and learn how these affect private businesses.
  • Global Financial Compliance. This course teaches you about international regulations, focusing on the financial services industry. 

Master’s in Compliance Online Programs

If you want to get your master’s in compliance online, there are plenty of American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited schools to choose from.

Albany Law School

Location: Albany, NY
Program Name: Master’s Degree in Financial Compliance and Risk Management or Health Law and Compliance
Enrollment Options: Part-Time
Length of Program: 1-2 years
About the Program: Both concentrations are offered as an LL.M. Candidates for the LL.M. must have a J.D. degree and can expect to complete the program in a year. There is also a non-lawyer master’s degree. This option is open to non-J.D. holders and can be completed in a little over a year.

Learn more about the online graduate programs at Albany Law School.

American University Washington College of Law – Sponsored Program

Location: Washington, D.C.
Program Name: Master of Legal Studies (MLS) – Health Care Compliance track
Enrollment Options: Full-Time or Part-Time
Length of Program: Complete in as few as 12 months
About the Program: The online Master of Legal Studies program from American University Washington College of Law is designed for non-lawyers who could benefit from fundamental legal training but do not want to become practicing attorneys. Through a curriculum that covers advanced legal concepts across various industries and an in-person immersion in Washington, D.C., students will be prepared to apply legal skills in their everyday role. The program can be completed in 12 months. No GRE/LSAT required to apply.

Learn more about the Master of Legal Studies program at American University Washington College of Law.

Florida State University College of Law

Location: Tallahassee, FL
Program Name: Juris Master in Financial Regulation and Compliance
Enrollment Options: Part-Time
Length of Program: 1-2 years
About the Program: This 30-credit program is fully online and can be completed on a part-time basis. It focuses on banking law, regulatory compliance, and financial transactions.

Learn more about the Juris Master in Financial Regulation and Compliance at Florida State University College of Law.

Fordham Law School – Sponsored Program

Location: Bronx, NY
Program Name: Master of Studies in Law in Corporate Compliance 
Enrollment Options: The flexible online curriculum can be completed at your own pace.
Length of Program: Complete in as few as 12 months
About the Program: Through Fordham Law School’s online Master of Studies in Law in Corporate Compliance program, students learn the legal intricacies of corporate compliance, including an introduction to U.S. law and legal institutions. Bachelor’s degree required and two years’ compliance-related work experience recommended to apply. 

Learn more about the Master of Studies in Law in Corporate Compliance at Fordham Law School.

Liberty University School of Law

Location: Lynchburg, VA
Program Name: Juris Master (J.M.) in Compliance
Enrollment Options: Full-Time
Length of Program: 1 year
About the Program: This 30-credit online J.M. in compliance provides training in legal systems, legal analysis, research of law topics, and a history of law to give students a thorough background in legal studies and equip them with skills to handle specialized compliance issues that may arise in work. Featured courses include healthcare compliance, ethics and professional responsibility, corporate compliance survey, and administrative law.

Learn more about the Juris Master in Compliance at Liberty University School of Law.

Loyola University School of Law

Location: Chicago, IL
Program Name: Master of Jurisprudence (MJ) in Compliance and Enterprise Risk Management
Length of Program: 2 years
About the Program: You can start the compliance program in the fall term, spring term, or summer term. Consisting of 24 credits, the program takes six semesters to complete. You must also attend two Education Immersion Weekends at Loyola’s Chicago campus.

Learn more about the Master of Jurisprudence in Compliance and Enterprise Risk Management from Loyola University School of Law.

Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Location: San Diego, CA
Program Name: Master of Science in Law (MSL) Financial Compliance & Risk Management
Enrollment Options: Part-Time
Length of Program: 1 year
About the Program: The program is offered as a 24-unit Master of Laws or a 30-unit Master of Science of Law in compliance. The program offers three concentrations: Taxation, Financial Services and Wealth Management, and Financial Compliance and Risk Management. Designed for working professionals, with only one course taken at a time, the program can be completed in one year if desired.

Learn more about the MSL in Financial Compliance & Risk Management from Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

Widener University Delaware Law School

Location: Wilmington, DE
Program Name: Graduate Compliance Programs
Enrollment Options: Part-Time
Length of Program: 2-5 years
About the Program: This school’s online master’s in compliance programs provide specialized concentrations for focused studies, including the Master of Jurisprudence (MJ) in Health Law, with a concentration in regulatory analysis & compliance. There’s also an MJ in Corporate and Business Law, with a concentration in Regulatory Analysis & Compliance, as well as a MJ/MBA dual degree.

Learn more about the graduate compliance programs from Widener University Delaware Law School.

What Can You Do with a Master’s Degree in Compliance?

Graduates with master’s in compliance degrees may end up working in business, healthcare, banking, finance, tax, marketing, government, or higher education. The skills you gain from compliance courses prepare you to create and run compliance programs in both private and public sectors. You could work in-house at an organization or provide legal counsel as needed to various clients.

Some graduates go into compliance law as practicing attorneys, but others may choose to become a compliance officer. A compliance officer’s main goal is to make sure their employer complies with all internal and external laws. While this role differs based on industry and organization size, compliance officers are generally in charge of running compliance programs, managing risks, and giving advice.

Frequently Asked Questions about Master’s Degrees in Compliance

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s answer some questions you may have about getting a master’s degree in compliance.

Who should consider a master’s degree in compliance?

You may consider getting a master’s degree in compliance if you want to become a compliance officer or work in compliance law. This may be a suitable career path for anyone with a background in law, business, finance, management, communication, and related subjects.

Is a master’s degree in compliance worth it?

There are many opportunities to work in compliance, in areas like healthcare, finance, business, and government. A compliance degree gives you the foundation and essential skills for this type of work. It prepares you to develop and run compliance programs, as well as advise on compliance issues.

If you already have a legal background, a compliance degree can help pivot or level up your career by giving you a new specialty that’s in high demand.

Can I apply for master’s in compliance without a background in law?

Yes. If you do not have a professional law degree, you might consider getting a master’s degree in legal studies, such as a Master of Legal Studies (MLS), a Master of Studies in Law (MSL), or a Juris Master (JM) in compliance. These are all degrees you can get without having a J.D.. On the other hand, a Master of Laws (LL.M.) does require a legal background, and candidates usually come in with a J.D.

Information on this page was last updated in July 2020.