Heidi Wicker on Adapting the Law for FinTech Innovations

Heidi Wicker

Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Stinson LLP’s fintech, payments and financial products team co-chair and partner Heidi Wicker to discuss her career and the trends she’s seeing in her practice. Wicker advises money services businesses, financial institutions, payment processors, multi-national retailers and technology companies on a range of electronic payments, banking, and e-commerce matters.

AALM: What do you do at the firm?

HW:  I have the privilege of focusing on really cool, cutting-edge products and services that our bank and non-bank technology-oriented clients are developing. The challenge is figuring out how today’s laws may or may not apply to tomorrow’s products and services.

AALM: What banking news has made an impact on your career this year?

HW: I would say the re-awakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to focus on non-bank technology companies providing financial products and services to consumers. Combined with law enforcement’s increased focus on fraud and criminal activities occurring through FinTech payments platforms have combined to really focus my clients on the importance of having a well-designed and effective compliance program, enterprise-wide.

I don’t see those two trends slowing down anytime soon, and the expectations of the regulators are only increasing that FinTech companies will utilize all technological tools, including AI, machine learning, and the like, within their means and at their disposal to ensure appropriate compliance  as well as  combating unlawful activity.

AALM: Banking and tax are huge subjects. What’s your area of special interest?

HW: What has kept me interested in banking law over the years is the fact that the payment technology is constantly evolving. One of my partners once said when the debit card was first invented, why on earth would anyone ever want to pay with their own money when they could use a credit card and pay with the bank’s money. Now, debit cards have overtaken credit cards in terms of payment volume, and the use of virtual tokens for online/cloud-based payments have surpassed the use of physical cards. Perhaps the same will be said about crypto one day.

AALM: Tell us what drew you to your firm.

HW: I was drawn to the first firm I joined after reading a student review by a summer law clerk, which was provided to our law school career center. The individual said that working at the firm cemented their decision to become a lawyer. That was a pretty bold statement. Naturally, I was curious about this firm, so I applied for a summer position as a 1L.

It turned out that the firm would be the best fit for me, and the founding partners would become my mentors for the next 20 years. They were always learning and evolving, and they taught me that the essence of practicing law is having an inquisitive mind. It is essentially like being Sherlock Holmes — asking the questions, following the clues, and finding a resolution.

AALM: What first drew you to the practice of law?

HW: My mother would say it is because I loved to argue, particularly with her! But in truth, I dressed up as an attorney for career day in fourth grade and never looked back. I didn’t want to be bored. I wanted to constantly learn and challenge myself intellectually, but with a larger purpose – of helping others. Also, I was fascinated by the fact that legal concepts are not static; they are interpreted over time, and that interpretation may be completely different, depending on the facts of the situation and era. The law lives and adapts as society and technology changes.

The law lives and adapts as society and technology changes.

AALM: How is your career today different than you envisioned while in law school?

HW: Little did I know that one of my primary roles wouldn’t be simply as a legal advisor, but as a business counselor – giving practical legal advice on how to move companies’ goals forward, in compliance with law. Anyone can tell the client what the law is – your value is whether you can advise them on options and risks for achieving their goals.

I love those long-term client relationships where I can really get into the weeds and understand a company’s products and services, risk profile and corporate culture and then tailor the advice accordingly. Even though we advise corporate entities, at the end of the day, practicing law is about people. It is about helping people accomplish the goals of the company.

While in law school, I also didn’t appreciate that, from a legal perspective, the law and my practice would constantly change as payments and banking technology changes, but there is never a dull moment!

AALM: What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned over your legal career.

HW: Don’t form preconceived notions of what the client’s goals might be or what the outcome may be. Don’t get ahead of yourself — ask questions to ensure you understand the issues, truly listen to the client’s responses, and only then design the strategy.

I’ve seen so many examples over my career – be it prepaid cards, in-vehicle devices to pay for transit or tolls, mobile payment apps, and now payments via cryptocurrency/blockchain. I have learned to enjoy being a fly on the wall and take each new payment or banking technology as it comes – anything could be the next big thing!

AALM: What is your favorite book, audiobook, or podcast?

HW: I try to mix up my mediums, but I am more of a book person. Right now on my iPad, for e-books I have The Men Who Would be King which chronicles Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen’s development and launch of the DreamWorks multimedia empire, and Kevin Kwan’s sequel to Crazy Rich Asians called China Rich Girlfriend (which I know I will devour in one sitting, so waiting for a long plane ride).

I also recently downloaded Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse: and How it Will Revolutionize Everything. He has been a thought leader in theorizing the possibilities of the new internet frontier.

For podcasts, I always love “You Must Remember This,” which dishes on long-forgotten stories and secrets of Hollywood’s elite in the golden age.

AALM: What’s the best financial advice that anyone ever gave you?

HW: If you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford it.

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