Benjamin Bai, former vice president and chief intellectual property (IP) and international litigation attorney at Ant Group, recently joined digital asset trading firm, Amber Group, as chief 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.
His latest professional defection is a sign of the times.
In recent years, several senior attorneys have also made transitions to in-house roles. Notably, the largest moves have all been moves to start-ups. The latest and by far the most high-profile is that of Julie Gao, a former partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who had built quite a brand advising Chinese companies on their high-stakes US quotes. . Gao joined Chinese media technology company ByteDance. Months before, his colleague Chris Betts – another former Skadden partner – left to join super-app company and Southeast Asian public transport giant Grab Holdings in Singapore.
In 2020, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison also lost its China director, Jeanette Chan, to a position as general counsel at digital payments company Airwallex.
Admittedly, Bai’s move internally happened earlier. In 2016, he left Allen & Overy after almost six years to join Ant Group, which owns and operates China’s largest digital payment platform, Alipay.
Ant’s parent company and e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba Group, which had yet to go public, began courting him soon after he joined 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 counsel, Tim Steinert, a former associate of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Alibaba and Ant continued to raid international law firms for talent. The firm now has former Simpson Thacher & Bartlett partner Leiming Chen and seasoned Fangda Partners attorney Jonathan Zhou in its ranks.
Several years after Bai was first approached for a position with the Ant Group, parent company Alibaba launched its massive US$25 billion initial public offering. Bai was approached again, by Chen. This time he gave in and never looked back.
“We talked about what else we could do together and my potential contribution at the time to the emerging fintech company that comes from China,” Bai said of his conversation with Chen.
Prior to 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, 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 filings in the world,” he said.
Over the past few years, Bai has developed a keen interest in Web 3, a catch-all term for the vision of a new and better Internet, based on blockchains and digital assets like cryptocurrency and cryptocurrencies. non-fungible tokens (NFT). He became a cryptocurrency investor himself and closely followed the growth and evolution of currencies and digital assets.
While Ant takes blockchain very seriously, having launched a myriad of blockchain-based solutions and platforms. Bai’s fascination with Web3 – and with cryptocurrencies in particular – has been hampered, as China bans all forms of cryptocurrency trading.
“Early last year, I started thinking, ‘What if we’re missing something?’ So I started getting interested in crypto from a professional perspective. I got so interested that I started buying cryptos on my own,” he said.
And so, when the opportunity arose, Bai found a friendly chat with Michael Wu, co-founder and CEO of global digital asset company Amber, and Wayne Huo, COO of the society, was particularly attractive. “We hit it off 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 at Ant, risk-taking now has a very different tone, Bai said.
“I think in law firms you analyze risks but you tend not to take risks. Risk taking 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 any options and they cannot not move forward at all, it’s ‘it’s going to kill their business,’ he explained.
“Risk must be quantified, and the business can use it to make its own decisions,” Bai said. continued. “Although as an in-house lawyer, I could say to them, ‘If you do that, you’re going to get beat up, but you’ll generate enough business benefit, and I’ll advocate for you as long as it’s not criminal “.”
When it comes to digital assets, the willingness to take risks is even more crucial, but it goes against the grain of traditional lawyer training. Additionally, most mainstream lawyers find it even harder to tackle the highly complex and evolving subject of the Metaverse and Web3, and their relative lack of regulatory frameworks and legal protections.
“Crypto is tough, 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 any crypto regulatory work, you have to understand how bitcoin works, how Ethereum works. It’s a completely different world.
And when law firms discuss working with him, Bai makes no sense about it.
“I tell my outside counsel that if he doesn’t understand crypto, he’s unlikely to understand our products, which means he really has nothing to do with me.”
Web3 and its relevant elements present abundant opportunity for investors, stakeholders and law firms, but also include a myriad of legal and regulatory risks and issues.
First and foremost, Bai says local governments need to figure out how crypto should be regulated.
“In the traditional financial world, the landscape is already set, but it’s set to the point that traditional institutions can’t innovate,” he said.
“Innovation won’t happen if you put that many strings. If that happens, you strangle innovation,” he explained. “So what leeway are you giving the crypto world? How do you protect investors and encourage innovation? This is something that every country tries to understand.
With Alipay and WeChat pay, for example, regulation came after innovation took off, Bai said.
However, it is not just the government that is holding back. 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 protection for investors made headlines.
But Bai argues that chess is an integral part of innovation. He is a firm believer in the rise of stablecoins and postulates 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 pivot to digital assets wasn’t natural either, even though he had been in the field of innovation for most of his time in private practice, having focused primarily on intellectual property. .
“I couldn’t have done it without having had my experience at Ant,” Bai said. “IP was only 20%, maybe 30% of what I did. I have done a lot of general legal work, litigation, investigations, AML (anti-money laundering), sanctions and financial regulatory work, so this has become the perfect transition for me after spent a few years at a leading fintech company.
Still, Bai took the time to think about whether to move to Amber because he didn’t want to create a succession problem at Ant, he said. At the same time, however, he knew the crypto train was not going to wait for him.
“In the crypto world, every month is like a year in the traditional world. I said if I waited two years, you know, I would miss a lot of fun,” Bai said.
Amber currently has a dozen attorneys 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 entirely from scratch appealed to him. A judicial commission will soon be set up.
“I don’t have a preconceived idea in terms of size,” said Bai, who added that instead of hiring a larger team to work on day-to-day needs, he will rely on external advice to routine work. It will also rely on law firms for litigation needs.
“So my team can do what in-house counsel needs to do to really add value to the business. I need to build a team that will focus on growing our business quickly,” 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 many people around the world who may not even have a bank account. We are going to bring financial inclusion through crypto,” Bai said. “And that’s the vision I share with Amber. I’m going to lead my legal team to make it happen.