Dolores DiBella Leads by Example at NFL Legal

Dolores DiBella on career development and legal practice at the NFL

Photo: Eric Espino/NFL

Eight years into her role with the National Football League, Dolores DiBella, vice president of legal affairs, says she has yet to spend a workday watching the clock.

“When I meet junior attorneys who say every day at the office feels long, I encourage them to explore new opportunities because law is never supposed to feel that way,” DiBella says. “You know that you’re on the right path when every workday passes in the blink of an eye, and I certainly feel that way here at the NFL.”

Since her first day, the lawyer says the NFL has made extraordinary strides in consumer, brand, and content protection. Every year, news media coverage spotlights the league’s anticounterfeiting efforts and ironclad protection over NFL trademarks, such as “Super Bowl,” that have become ubiquitous. Fourteen years into her legal career, DiBella says going in-house has been its own education, providing a foundation to branch out in almost any direction in the legal industry.

Prior to arriving at perhaps the most recognizable league in sports, DiBella spent more than five years at the New York firm Proskauer Rose. It was an invaluable experience that provided a solid bedrock of broad litigation skills as well as expertise in intellectual property (IP), entertainment, and media.

“Dolores’s legal and business acumen are top-notch,” says Elise Bloom, partner at Proskauer Rose. “She is a strategic thinker and an indispensable, practical business partner. We are honored to work with her and her team at the NFL.”

And her mentors have helped her implement her experience regardless of her industry. “I’ve been quite fortunate to have mentors throughout my career who not only took the time to invest in my success but taught me to be the type of attorney who leads by example,” she says.

Her mentors showed her she could be a successful attorney who also maintained a work/life balance. Those mentors, DiBella says, provided great guidance on career navigation no matter how different her next role might be. Case in point: moving to the sports industry.

“It’s great if you’re a [sports] fan and bring that excitement to your role, but what matters more is having the substantive knowledge needed to get the job done.”

Pass Protection Meets IP Protection

In moving to the NFL, DiBella says the incredible opportunity also came with its own challenges. Her time at Proskauer hadn’t involved sports clients, and issues like anticounterfeiting and brand protection were new areas of practice for the young attorney.

“It required me to dive into a subject area where I had the underlying legal knowledge but still needed to develop the industry experience,” DiBella says. “I had to make immediate strides to learn about the league, the teams, and the industry.”

Anticounterfeiting and content protection have become standout areas of evolution for the NFL legal team. “I’m most passionate about the consumer, brand, and content protection areas of my IP portfolio,” DiBella says. “The NFL as an organization has been able to create many valuable partnerships and has proven itself a driving force from both a legal and policy perspective in anticounterfeiting and antipiracy initiatives.” Further, DiBella says every passing year at the NFL has offered a new area of the law for her to delve into and learn about, even beyond IP and litigation—a  welcome challenge for a lover of the law.

“Dolores is like a legal quarterback,” says Dale Cendali, partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “She is a true leader who mobilizes and instructs the team to fulfill the NFL’s objective. She is an expert in her field and is fun to work with.”

DiBella understands her position may be an enviable one for any sports enthusiast, which may make it more surprising to learn that traditional “fandom” did not weigh into her initial choice to come to the league. “It’s a much better idea to focus on finding the substantive area of law that you love first,” DiBella says. “Then you can focus on the industry where you want to practice.”

Many attorneys think that to work in sports, they have to work for a league or a team; nothing else will do, she says. But the number of legal careers in partner companies and agencies that cross the sports industry are limitless if you are looking through a wider lens. “It’s great if you’re a fan and bring that excitement to your role,” DiBella advises, “but what matters more is having the substantive knowledge needed to get the job done.”

What is your advice for the next generation looking to make waves in their fields? 

Focus on finding an area of the law you love, and then it will be much easier to find opportunities to advance and excel. Choose a legal practice because you enjoy it, not because you think it’s a path to quick success. 

It’s Never Too Early to Get in the Game

Early on at the NFL, DiBella’s boss was slated to speak on a panel about ambush marketing but was unable to make the engagement. DiBella had to step in—and quickly learned that she had a talent and passion for sharing her knowledge as well as learning from others in public speaking panels and industry presentations.

“I’ve gained some of my most valuable experience from joining panels and fireside chats,” DiBella says. “Often, I’ll speak alongside legal professionals outside sports that I wouldn’t have encountered in day-to-day work, and those opportunities are an impactful way to grow your networks and knowledge base.”

DiBella says that junior attorneys often feel like there is some prerequisite they need to achieve before agreeing to public speaking engagements, but it’s simply not the case. “Don’t feel like you need to be a subject-matter expert on every topic before raising your hand to volunteer for speaking opportunities; everyone in the legal profession has valuable insights someone else wants to hear,” DiBella says. “While you of course need to be prepared on the topic at hand, the best advice I can give is to just jump in.”

DiBella has spoken on a range of issues, including IP, employment law, litigation, and career development. At the time of the interview, she had just spoken at Georgetown University’s Annual Women’s Forum on a panel for students and alumnae interested in pursuing careers in sports.

“As I’ve moved further along in my career, I’ve taken the opportunity to coach law students and junior practitioners in various settings and mentoring relationships,” DiBella says. “I know how much I’ve benefited from the guidance of senior lawyers over the years, and passing along advice to rising attorneys is the best way to pay it forward.”