I magine that you serve as ethics and compliance counsel for a large multinational organization. One morning, you arrive to work with the news that a recent set of regulations has just been implemented that no one, including your own legal department, saw coming. What do you do?
“You would immediately review the regulation, analyze what you’re doing against the requirements, assess compliance challenges, and get with industry partners to provide feedback as quickly as possible,” says Melanie Condron, senior corporate counsel at Accenture Federal Services and vice chair of the ACC Ethics and Compliance Committee. “And if changes are not going to occur, then you would do the best that you could to comply."Condron has devoted her career to the pursuit of both government contracts and ethics and compliance. After spending almost a decade at IBM Corporation, she was offered an opportunity to expand her expertise as compliance and ethics counsel at Accenture Federal Services — an opportunity she describes as a natural progression.
“Integrity and transparency are values that I’ve always prioritized and qualities that I’ve always admired in other people. So, when the opportunity arose to become corporate counsel in ethics and compliance, I took it,” she states.
Condron admits that she is rarely blindsided by an impending regulation thanks to programs in place at Accenture — which allow the legal team to stay up-to-date on the most recent industry trends, regulatory changes, and jurisdictional standards. However, with 28 percent of respondents to the ACC Chief Legal Officers 2017 Survey reporting that they’ve been the target of a regulator in the past two years, she encourages in-house counsel to remain vigilant for compliance changes around every corner.
And she’s not alone. Seventy-four percent of respondents rated ethics and compliance to be a top issue keeping CLOs up at night — up three percent from last year, according to the ACC Chief Legal Officers 2017 Survey. Regulatory and government changes (71 percent) and data breaches (68 percent) also ranked high amongst the list of key trends.
“Experts are staying up on their craft,” Condron states. “CLOs tend to value strong business ethics and compliance programs. Regulatory changes, especially in light of the changing [US] administration, and data breaches are hot topics right now. So I definitely think these issues are interconnected.”
As many ethics and compliance professionals can attest: It is no longer the question of if your company will be the target of a regulator, it’s when. When asked about what strategies in-house counsel can implement to ensure that their company stays out of the spotlight, Condron underscores the value of due diligence and the importance of transparency.
“I suggest being transparent, reporting wrongdoing, maintaining ongoing communication with whoever is reviewing your program, and thoughtfully supporting audits. It would be prudent for any company to closely track proposed and final rules, executive orders, case law, and guidance that may affect their business,” she says.
In some instances, however, regulations can shift suddenly as a result of the rapidly changing geopolitical climate. In fact, one in three CLO respondents noted that they made at least one change to their legal department as a result of geopolitical events (e.g., economic conflicts or administration changes), according to the ACC Chief Legal Officers 2017 Survey.
While events like these are largely unpredictable, Condron emphasizes that there are ways to stay abreast of policy changes in real time. With the advent of modern technology, and in particular social media, making predictions about legislative trends should be commonplace for any legal department. If, however, your company is still caught off guard, Condron argues that the best thing you can do is to be forthcoming about your concerns with regulators.
“If regulations are confusing, and your outside counsel is unclear, many other industry partners are likely in the same position. In some cases, the government is willing to work with you on extending the timeline to comply and will provide guidance to help you do so,” she explains.
These concerns may need to be specially tailored depending on what industry-space you operate in. According to the ACC Chief Legal Officers 2017 Survey, respondents in the retail trade (44 percent) and energy industry (42 percent) report having higher than average concerns about ethics and compliance (31 percent). Condron argues that this kind of specificity is to be expected, as the types of products you make, the services you provide, and the end-clients you serve all impact how you develop your program. Compliance programs must be specific to the company; A one-size-fits-all approach will not be enough to ensure the safety of operations worldwide.
“Compliance programs should not be static, rather flexible and ever-evolving to address the risks of your business. You should be reevaluating your program both as changes occur and on an annual basis,” Condron asserts.
Jurisdictionally, in-house counsel should begin to think more broadly about how company operations in one region could inadvertently lead to regulatory violations in another. For instance, general counsel based in the United States may find value from the knowledge that more CLOs in Europe (34 percent) report having experienced data breaches and regulatory action than those in other regions. While Condron focuses on the federal environment in the United States, she is familiar with trends both across state lines and internationally.
“It’s important to be familiar with global regulatory leaders and your local trends, as your jurisdiction may catch on. For instance, European privacy laws favor the consumer more than US laws, but the US is catching up in that area,” she explains.
In instances like this, hiring specialized outside counsel might ensure that industry or jurisdictional compliance is up to standard. However, statistically, CLO respondents noted that ethics and compliance matters have been less frequently outsourced in recent years. While Condron has not witnessed this trend first-hand, she attests that it could be due to the fact that CLOs are beginning to build up their internal departments to meet the needs of the business.
“This trend may be because businesses are staffing up their compliance and ethics programs as the DOJ has clearly emphasized its significance recently, and across administrations,” she says.
Looking into the future of ethics and compliance, Condron predicts that law departments around the world will need to adapt to the digital world and have stronger mechanisms in place to protect data. As geopolitical events continue to affect standards at both the local and international level, in-house counsel should be able to adjust readily to impending regulatory updates, and provide confidence to companies operating in an increasingly unpredictable legislative environment. This means that compliance and ethics programs cannot be restricted to paper, and must provide a meaningful role throughout the business — from the top of leadership and throughout all reporting chains.
Throughout her career, Condron’s tenacity and commitment to transparency has given her an essential in-house voice in the ethics and compliance realm. The road ahead, she argues, is not to be feared — but prepared for. As the world continues to grow, your compliance and ethics program must simply adapt to grow with it.
If you are interested in learning more about the latest developments in ACC research, visit our research portal for an exclusive look at the recently published ACC Chief Legal Officers 2017 Survey.
Comments and opinions expressed by Melanie Condron are her personal opinions and comments and do not represent those of her employer or of ACC related to this topic and the opinions expressed.