La Dell Diaz has been with ACI Wordwide for twenty years—and her path to the company began, oddly enough, with Y2K. Her first major position as a contract attorney was with regional Bell operating company US West, where she was part of a team of lawyers hired in the pre-Y2K panic. “We dug into jillions of contracts, talked to engineers and network operators and all that kind of stuff,” Diaz explains. “And then Y2K comes and it’s just . . . New Year’s Day. No big deal.”
There was a tiny twinge of regret that all their hard work was for nothing, she admits, but “everybody was happy that they now have contracts that meet their needs,” she says. “And oh, by the way, it’s not the Stone Age.”
After the new year, her employer gave Diaz three months of pay to keep her on the books and find a new job, which she did: she was hired as an associate counsel with ACI Worldwide, which develops electronic payment systems software. Twenty years and several promotions later, she’s senior vice president of legal.
Two decades is a long time to survive and thrive in the tech industry, and Diaz credits ACI’s emphasis on knowledge, experience, and expertise with its ability to stay relevant in the ever-changing market. When she joined in 2000, there were just over a thousand employees globally, with a $300 to $400 million market cap. Now, ACI has more than four thousand employees with a $5-plus billion market cap and serves more than five thousand customers around the globe. “We’re in every inhabited continent on the earth, and it’s incredible,” she says.
That growth tracks neatly with Diaz’s own progress through the company. For the first three years, she was an associate counsel (“basically a staff attorney,” she notes), handling one or two products at a time. But after gaining a reputation for efficiency and responsiveness, she was promoted to counsel, then to senior counsel two years later, managing contract activity for nearly the entire western hemisphere and all their product lines. As ACI grew more acquisition-minded, she was promoted three separate times over the next five years while the company tripled in size.
One of Diaz’s major roles is facilitating communication: she not only manages her team of twenty-seven attorneys and contract administrators, who are spread out in offices across the world, but also interfaces with virtually every other department at ACI, from sales to finance and tax to product development and engineering, to make sure agreements are aligned with the company’s professional strategy.
“Sometimes your client is best served when you advocate for the client, instead of fighting against an opponent.”
An ongoing initiative that Diaz considers especially vital to the company is creating a safe and compliant method of using third-party software in ACI’s own proprietary work. Much of this involves making frequent use of open-source code, which is free, rather than commercial software that would cost money. There are challenges to those savings, Diaz warns: “When a publicly-traded multinational corporation uses a third party’s work in their software, you have to do what’s right.” To that end, Diaz’s team works diligently to maintain compliance with license restrictions for this open-source code.
Diaz is also part of the cross-functional team for ACI’s transition to cloud-based services, which is now a major part of their business. “I am really, really proud that I was on the ground floor of helping this organization grow into its next phase of technology deployment,” she says.
Along the way, Diaz has learned a lot of lessons about the tech industry and ACI as a company. Chief among them is the need to be well-rounded as a lawyer from a business perspective. “Regardless of the law you want to practice, the smartest thing to do is add an element of business education,” she notes. “Two things will always be necessary: lawyers and business people. If you can do both, you are set.”
It’s also important, she says, to refine your understanding of the attorney/client relationship. “Sometimes your client is best served when you advocate for the client, instead of fighting against an opponent,” Diaz says. Determine your client’s goals and motivations, and why they need your services, and you’ll be a better representative for them.
Key to that understanding of your client is transparent communication, which Diaz touts as one of the most important lessons a corporate lawyer can learn. “One of the hardest things to learn as a young attorney is admitting that you don’t know something,” she says. “You have to know yourself well enough to admit that ‘I don’t know this thing, but I can find out the answer.’”
Over the course of her years at ACI Worldwide, Diaz has found herself growing and changing as an in-house lawyer, and she hopes to continue that growth in the future. After all, it’s how she not only stays relevant in a fast-changing industry, but also helps her company do the same. Part of her mission, she says, includes keeping employee morale high. “We’ve done a good job of nurturing our people and have hung onto them a lot longer than most, it seems,” she says. That means trust, communication, and expertise win the day at ACI.