Benjamin Bai of Ant Group turns to crypto: it’s now or never

Benjamin Bai, former vice president and head of intellectual property (IP) and international litigation attorney at Ant Group, recently joined digital asset trading firm Amber Group as lead legal counsel.

Bai, who will soon be moving to Singapore from Shanghai, was previously a partner and head of regional IP practices at Allen & Overy and Jones Day.

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His latest professional defection is a sign of the times.

In recent years, some senior lawyers have also made the transition to internal positions. In particular, the largest relocations have all been relocations to start-ups. The latest and by far the most talked-about is that of Julie Gao, a former partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who had built quite a brand by advising Chinese companies on their high-stakes US quotes. Gao joined Chinese media technology company ByteDance. Months earlier, his colleague Chris Betts – another former Skadden partner – left to join Singapore super-app company and Southeast Asian public transport giant Grab Holdings.

In 2020, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison also lost their China director, Jeanette Chan, to a position as a general counsel at Airwallex, a digital payments company.

True, Bai’s move has happened internally before. In 2016, he left Allen & Overy after nearly six years to join Ant Group, the owner and operator of China’s largest digital payment platform, Alipay.

Ant’s parent company and e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba Group, which has not yet gone public, began courting him shortly after joining Jones Day’s Allen & Overy, where he had led the litigation practice in the company’s patents in China. . But he turned down the opportunity.

“I was skeptical, to be honest,” Bai said. “The idea of ​​working for an e-commerce platform at the time just didn’t appeal to me.”

The opportunity came through Alibaba’s general adviser, Tim Steinert, a former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer employee. Alibaba and Ant continued to raid international law firms in search of talent. The firm now includes former Simpson Thacher & Bartlett partner Leiming Chen and seasoned Fangda Partners attorney Jonathan Zhou.

Several years after Bai was first approached for a position with the Ant Group, parent company Alibaba launched its massive $25 billion IPO. Bai was again approached by Chen. This time he gave in and never looked back.

“We talked about what else we could do together and my possible contribution at the time to the emerging fintech company coming out of China,” Bai said of his conversation with Chen.

Before joining Ant, Chen was a leading international lawyer advising Chinese companies on their IPOs in the United States and Hong Kong. “It was different for me. I was a lawyer representing international companies like IBM or Apple and suing Chinese companies for intellectual property infringement,” Bai said.

But he told himself that before he died or retired, he wanted to be able to do something for a deserving Chinese company.

“Ant was my choice and now has the largest blockchain patent applications in the world,” he said.

In recent years, Bai has developed a keen interest in Web 3, a collective term for the vision of a new and better internet, based on blockchains and digital assets such as cryptocurrency and cryptocurrencies.non-fungible tokens (NFT). He became a cryptocurrency investor himself, closely following the growth and evolution of currencies and digital assets.

While Ant takes blockchain very seriously, it has launched a large number of blockchain based solutions and platforms. Bai’s fascination with Web3 – and cryptocurrencies in particular – has been stunted as China bans all forms of cryptocurrency trading.

“Early last year I started thinking, ‘What if we miss something?’ So I started to get interested in crypto from a professional perspective. I became so interested that I started buying cryptos myself,” he said.

So when the opportunity presented itself, Bai found a friendly chat with Michael Wu, co-founder and CEO of global digital asset firm Amber, and Wayne Huo, the company’s chief operating officer. , was particularly attractive. “We clicked and that was it – here I am,” Bai said with a laugh.

His newly discovered penchant for taking risks when it comes to his crypto investments did not come naturally. Much of it was acquired only after leaving private practice. But after more than five years with Ant, taking risks now has a very different tone, Bai said.

“I think at law firms you analyze risks, but you don’t take any risks. Taking risks is a state of mind and also a capacity. This is what my team is all about,” Bai said.

“In-house lawyers need to be able to work with business people, because if you tell your colleagues that they are going to infringe, for example, certain intellectual property rights, and you don’t give them options and they can’t get all the way forward, it’s ‘it’s going to destroy their business’, he explained.

“The risk needs to be quantified and the company can use it to make its own decisions,” Bai said. continued. “Although as an in-house attorney I might say to them, ‘If you do that, you’ll get beat up, but you’ll generate enough business benefits, and I’ll advocate for you as long as it takes. Not criminal.’”

When it comes to digital assets, the willingness to take risks is even more important, but it goes against traditional lawyer training. In addition, most mainstream attorneys find it even more difficult to tackle the highly complex and evolving subject matter of the Metaverse and Web3, and their relative lack of regulatory frameworks and legal protections.

“Crypto is difficult, especially regulatory, so you see a lot of law firms trying to set up a crypto regulatory practice,” Bai said. “But if you’re going to do crypto regulatory work, you have to understand how bitcoin works, how Ethereum works. It’s a completely different world.

And when law firms talk about working with him, Bai doesn’t feel like it.

“I tell my outside counsel that if he doesn’t understand crypto, he probably doesn’t understand our products either, which means he really has nothing to do with me.”

Web3 and its relevant elements provide ample opportunities for investors, stakeholders and law firms, but also encompass many legal and regulatory risks and issues.

First and foremost, Bai says that local governments need to figure out how to regulate crypto.

“In the traditional financial world, the landscape has already been set, but it has come to the point where traditional institutions cannot innovate,” he said.

“Innovation doesn’t work when you have so many strings in your hands. When that happens, you stifle innovation,” he explains. “So what leeway do you give the crypto world? How do you protect investors and stimulate innovation? This is something every country is trying to understand.

With Alipay and WeChat Pay, for example, the regulation came after the innovation got off the ground, Bai said.

However, it is not just the government that is lagging behind. Innovation can also be stifled by the failures of innovation itself, Bai noted, pointing to the mess that was stablecoin LUNA, which lost almost all of its value last month, as a prime example. Investors lost millions of dollars without reward, and the lack of legal protections for investors made headlines.

But Bai argues that chess is an integral part of innovation. He is a strong supporter of the rise of stablecoins, stating that in the next decade, half of the world’s financial products will be based on cryptocurrencies and the other half on fiat.

Bai’s linchpin to digital assets was also unnatural, though he’d spent most of his time in private innovation practice, focusing primarily on intellectual property.

“I couldn’t have done it without having my experience with Ant,” Bai said. “IP was only 20%, maybe 30% of what I was doing. I’ve done a lot of general legal work, litigation, investigations, AML (anti-money laundering), sanctions and financial regulatory work, so this has been the perfect transition for me after working at a leading fintech company for a few years.

Still, Bai took the time to consider moving to Amber because he didn’t want to create a succession problem with Ant, he said. At the same time, however, he knew that the crypto train would not wait for him.

“In the crypto world, every month is like a year in the traditional world. I said if I waited two years, I would miss a lot of fun,” Bai said.

Amber currently has a dozen lawyers around the world. The team will continue to grow. Bai’s plan is to shape the legal department in terms of culture, risk taking and corporate governance structures. The idea of ​​building a function almost from scratch appealed to him. A judicial commission will be set up shortly.

“I don’t have a preconceived idea in terms of size,” Bai said, adding that instead of hiring a larger team to work on day-to-day needs, he will rely on outside advice for routine work. It will also appeal to law firms for litigation needs.

“So my team can do what the corporate lawyer needs to do to really add value to the business. I need to build a team that will focus on the rapid growth of our business,” he said.

On Bai’s LinkedIn profile, he describes himself as a “crypto enthusiast.” But at the root of this enthusiasm is a belief system that resonates with Amber’s mission.

“We are going to use crypto to reach a lot of people around the world who may not even have a bank account. We are going to bring financial inclusion through crypto,” said Bai. “And that is the vision I share with Amber. I will lead my legal team to make it happen.

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