Ant Group’s Benjamin Bai Pivots to Crypto: It’s Now or Never

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

Bai, who will soon be relocating to Singapore from Shanghai, was previously a partner and head of the 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 made transitions into in-house roles. Notably, the most prominent moves have all been moves into 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 an entire brand for herself in advising Chinese companies on their high stakes U.S. listings. Gao has moved to the Chinese media technology company ByteDance. Months before that, her colleague Chris Betts—another former Skadden partner—left to join super-app company and Southeast Asian ride-hailing giant Grab Holdings in Singapore.

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

To be sure, Bai’s move in-house 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 hadn’t yet gone public, started courting him shortly after he joined Allen & Overy from Jones Day, where he had led the firm’s patent litigation practice in China. But he turned down the opportunity.

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

The opportunity came via Alibaba’s general counsel, Tim Steinert, a former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner. Alibaba and Ant continued raiding international law firms for talent. The company now counts former Simpson Thacher & Bartlett partner Leiming Chen and Fangda Partners’ veteran lawyer Jonathan Zhou among its ranks.

Several years after Bai was first approached about a position at Ant Group, parent company Alibaba did its mammoth US$25 billion U.S. initial public offering. Bai was approached again, by Chen. This time he relented and never looked back.

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

Prior to moving to Ant, Chen was one of the leading international lawyers advising Chinese companies on their American and Hong Kong IPOs. “It was different for me. I was a lawyer who was representing international companies like IBM or Apple, chasing Chinese companies for IP infringement,” said Bai.

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 pick, and it 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 non-fungible tokens (NFTs). He has become an investor in cryptocurrencies himself and has closely followed the growth and evolution of digital currencies and 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—was impeded, as China prohibits any form of cryptocurrency trading.

“At the beginning of last year, I started thinking to myself, ‘What if we are missing something?’ So I started looking into crypto from a work perspective. I got interested so much that I started to buy crypto on my own,” he said.

And so, when the opportunity arose, Bai found that a friendly conversation with Michael Wu, co-founder and chief executive officer of global digital asset company Amber, and Wayne Huo, the company’s chief operating officer, was particularly appealing. “We hit it off and that was it—here I am,” said Bai, laughing.

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

“I think in law firms, you analyze risks but you tend not to take risks. Risk-taking is a mindset and also an ability. It has been what my team is all about,” said Bai.

“In-house counsel must be able to work with business people because if you tell your business colleagues that they are going to infringe, for example, some IP rights, and you give them no options and they cannot move forward at all, it’ll kill their business,” he explained.

“Risk must be quantified, and the business can use that to make their own decisions,” Bai. continued. “Though as an in-house lawyer, I might tell them, ‘if you do this you are going to get clobbered but you’ll generate enough commercial benefits, and I’d litigate for you so long as it is not criminal.’ ”

When it comes to digital assets, the willingness to take risks is even more crucial, yet, it goes against the grain for how lawyers are traditionally trained. Additionally, most traditional lawyers find it even harder to grapple with the highly complex and evolving subject of the metaverse and Web3, and their relative lack of regulatory frameworks and legal protections.

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

And when law firms discuss working with him, Bai is no-nonsense about this.

“I tell my outside counsel that if they don’t understand crypto, then they are unlikely going to understand our products, which means they really don’t have business talking to me.”

Web3 and its relevant elements present a plentiful opportunity for investors, stakeholders and law firms alike but include also a myriad of risks and legal and regulatory issues.

First and foremost, Bai says local governments need to figure out how crypto should be regulated.

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

“Innovation won’t occur if you put on so many shackles. If that happens, you strangle innovation,” he explained. “So how much leeway do you give to the crypto world? How do you protect investors and encourage innovation? That’s something every country is trying to figure out.”

With Alipay and WeChat pay, for example, the regulation came after the innovation took off, Bai said.

It’s not just government putting on the brakes, however. Innovation can also be stifled by the failures of the innovation itself, Bai noted, pointing out that the mess that was the stablecoin LUNA, which lost almost its entire value just last month, is a prime example. Investors lost millions of dollars with no recompense, and the lack of legal protection for investors grabbed the headlines.

But Bai argues that failures are part and parcel of innovation. He believes firmly in the rise of stablecoins and posits that in the next decade, half of the world’s financial products will be based in cryptocurrencies and the other half fiat.

Bai’s pivot into digital assets wasn’t a natural one, either, even though he’d been around innovation for most of his time in private practice, having focused predominately on intellectual property.

“I would not have been able to do this without having gone through my experience at Ant,” said Bai. “IP was only 20%, maybe 30% of what I did. I did a lot of general legal work, litigation, investigations, AML (anti-money laundering), sanctions and financial regulatory work, so it became the perfect transition for me having spent some years at a world-leading fintech company.”

Still, Bai took time to think about whether he should make the move to Amber, as he didn’t want to create a succession issue at Ant, he said. At the same time, though, he knew the crypto train wasn’t going to wait for him.

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

Amber currently has about a dozen lawyers globally. The team will continue to grow. Bai’s plan is to shape the legal department in terms of its culture, risk-taking and corporate governance structures. The idea of building a function almost entirely from scratch appealed to him. A legal panel will soon be put in place.

“I don’t have a preconceived notion in terms of size,” said Bai, who added that instead of hiring a bigger team to work on the day-to-day needs, he will lean on external counsel for routine work. He will also rely on law firms for litigation needs.

“So my team gets to do what in-house counsel must do to really add value to the business. I need to build a team that will focus on enabling our business to grow rapidly,” he said.

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

“We are going to use crypto to touch upon many people around the world who may not even have a bank account. We’re going to bring financial inclusion via crypto,” said Bai. “And this is the vision I share with Amber. I’m going to lead my legal team to make it happen.

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