Ant Group’s Benjamin Bai aims for Crypto – it’s now or never

Benjamin Bai, former vice president and chief intellectual property (IP) and international litigation consultant for Ant Group, recently moved to digital asset trading firm, Amber Group, as chief legal counsel.

Bai, who will soon be relocating 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 lawyers have also moved into internal roles. In particular, the most important moves were all the moves in start-ups. The latest and by far the highest profile is that of Julie Gao, a former partner of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who had built an entire brand for herself by advising Chinese companies on their high stakes quotations in the states. United. Gao switched to the Chinese multimedia technology company ByteDance. Months before her, her colleague Chris Betts, another former Skadden partner, left to join a super-app company and Southeast Asian ride-hailing giant Grab Holdings in Singapore.

In 2020, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison also lost their Chinese boss, Jeanette Chan, to a general counsel position at digital payment firm Airwallex.

Actually, Bai’s move happened earlier. In 2016, she left Allen & Overy after nearly six years to join the Ant group, which owns and operates China’s largest digital payment platform, Alipay.

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

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

The opportunity came through Alibaba’s general counsel, Tim Steinert, a former Freshfields partner Bruckhaus Deringer. Alibaba and Ant continued to search international law firms for talent. The company now includes former Simpson partner Thacher & Bartlett Leiming Chen and veteran Fangda Partners attorney Jonathan Zhou.

Several years after Bai was first approached for a position in Ant Group, parent company Alibaba made its gigantic $ 25 billion initial public offering. Bai was approached by Chen again. This time he gave in and never looked back.

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

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Prior to moving to Ant, Chen was a leading international lawyer advising Chinese companies on US and Hong Kong IPOs. “It was different for me. I was a lawyer representing international companies like IBM or Apple, pursuing 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 worthy Chinese company.

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

In recent years, Bai has developed a keen interest in Web 3, an all-encompassing term for the vision of a new and better Internet, based on blockchain and digital assets such as cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). He has become a cryptocurrency investor himself and has 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 especially cryptocurrencies, has been thwarted, as China prohibits any form of cryptocurrency trading.

“Early last year, I started thinking to myself, ‘What if we’re missing something?’ So I started looking at cryptocurrencies from a business point of view. I got so interested that I started buying cryptocurrencies on my own, “he said.

And so, when the opportunity presented itself, Bai found that a friendly conversation with Michael Wu, co-founder and CEO of the global digital asset firm Amber, and Wayne Huo, the company’s chief operating officer, was particularly tempting. “We just agreed, here I am,” Bai said, laughing.

His newfound penchant for taking risks when it came to his cryptocurrency investments didn’t come naturally. Much of it was only acquired after leaving private practice. But after more than five years at Ant, risk-taking now has a very different tune, Bai said.

“I think that in law firms we analyze risks but we tend not to take risks. Risk-taking is a mindset and also a skill. It was what my team was about, ”Bai said.

“The internal consultant needs to be able to work with business people because if you tell your co-workers that they will infringe, for example, some intellectual property rights, and you don’t give them any options and they absolutely can’t move forward, it’s “going to kill their business,” he explained.

“The risk has to be quantified and the company can use it to make their own decisions,” Bai. continued. “Although as an in-house attorney, I could tell them, ‘if you do this you will be beaten but you will generate enough commercial benefits, and I would sue you as long as it is not criminal.’ “

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When it comes to digital assets, willingness to take risks is even more crucial, but it goes against the grain of the way lawyers are traditionally trained. Furthermore, most traditional lawyers find it even more difficult to deal with the highly complex and evolving subject of the metaverse and the Web3 and the related lack of regulatory frameworks and legal safeguards.

“Crypto is difficult, especially on the regulatory front, so you see a lot of law firms trying to build a crypto regulatory practice,” Bai said. “But if you are going to do cryptocurrency regulation work, you need to understand how bitcoin works, how Ethereum works. It’s a completely different world ”.

And when law firms discuss working with him, Bai is not nonsense about that.

“I tell my outside consultant that if they don’t understand cryptocurrencies, they’re unlikely to understand our products, which means they don’t really have any business talking to me.”

Web3 and its relevant elements represent an abundant opportunity for investors, stakeholders and law firms, but they also include a myriad of risks and legal and regulatory issues.

First, Bai says local governments need to understand how to regulate cryptocurrencies.

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

“Innovation won’t happen if you put on so many chains. If that happens, you stifle innovation, “he explained.” So how much leeway do you give the cryptocurrency world? How do you protect investors and encourage innovation? It’s something every country is trying to understand. “

With Alipay and WeChat pay, for example, settlement 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, noting that the LUNA stablecoin mess, which lost nearly all of its value last month alone, is a prime example. Investors lost millions of dollars without compensation and the lack of legal protection for investors made headlines.

But Bai argues that failures are an integral part of innovation. He strongly believes in the rise of stablecoins and speculates that over the next decade half of the world’s financial products will be based on cryptocurrencies and the other half on fiat currencies.

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Bai’s shift to digital assets also didn’t come naturally, although he devoted himself to innovation for most of his time in private practice, having mainly focused on intellectual property.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my Ant experience,” Bai said. “The IP was only 20%, maybe 30% of what I did. I did a lot of general legal work, litigation, investigation, AML (anti-money laundering), sanctions and financial regulation work, so it became transition. perfect for me after spending a few years in a world-leading fintech company. “

However, Bai took some time to think about whether he should move to Amber, as he didn’t want to create a succession problem for Ant, he said. At the same time, however, he knew the crypto train wouldn’t wait for him.

“In the world of cryptocurrencies, every month is like a year in the traditional world. I said if I had waited two years, you know, I would have missed out on a lot of fun, ”Bai said.

Amber currently has about 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. He liked the idea of ​​building a function almost entirely from scratch. A legal panel will be set up shortly.

“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, she will rely on outside consultants for routine work. He will also rely on law firms for litigation needs.

“So my team can do what internal consultants need to do to really add value to the business. I need to build a team that will focus on enabling our business to grow rapidly, ”she said.

On Bai’s LinkedIn profile, he describes himself as a “cryptocurrency enthusiast”. But behind this enthusiasm is a belief system that he resonates with Amber’s mission.

“We will use cryptocurrencies to touch many people around the world who may not even have a bank account. We will bring financial inclusion through cryptocurrencies, “Bai said.” And this is the vision I share with Amber. I will lead my legal team to make it happen.

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