Will the Metaverse Help Young Lawyers Break New Ground?

First published on Law.com International on 13 June 2022


I know I sound like a broken record when I lament about how hard it is to find senior partners in Asia who are well versed in the world of cryptocurrency, the metaverse and Web3.

I reached out to more than a dozen Big Law partners when I was first writing about the Terra LUNA fallout, but most of them chose to err on the side of caution and declined to speak. I did tons of research and finally ended up getting insight from lawyers at much smaller firms. When I posted about my struggle on my LinkedIn page, a couple of things became clear.

I received a fair number of messages and invitations to connect from lawyers who are well-versed in the subject. But none of them are partners. Most are counsel or senior associates.

Several of those who responded are in-house counsel at fintech firms and startups. Many said they, too, have struggled to find the right legal advisers to support their needs.

“Law firm lawyers can be quite behind in understanding crypto and fintech. But hard to blame them. They’re just supposed to focus on the law—in their minds at least,” said one in-house counsel, suggesting that to advice on crypto and fintech, the law is only a small portion of what they need to understand.

One solo practitioner who is a former investment banker said that lawyers who have experience in structuring financial products should be able to identify the risks involved in crypto products such as the LUNA stablecoin.

I must say I’m not convinced.

Unless a lawyer really understands how a 1:1 peg algorithm works and can point to how it might fail, how can one articulate the risks, except maybe to say to clients, “Whoa, there’s too much risk exposure here.” No one is well-placed to advise on the legal risks of something they don’t understand.

When it comes to the metaverse, a cult of obsession is at play. Clients dealing in that world are different—they are driven by the never-ending possibilities of technology. Legal ramifications are a second thought—if that.

It is rare that a senior partner knows how to deal with this. A more recent generation of lawyers is just better equipped to understand that mentality, the drive of “new money” clients, the technology that is available, and how the technology works.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That would just be a hugely inaccurate, sweeping statement. Many senior lawyers do venture into new areas of practice and industries—many pivot and do it successfully.

I’ve just written a feature about Benjamin Bai, who is now the chief legal officer at digital assets platform Amber Group. Bai was a former regional intellectual property head at Allen & Overy and Jones Day; he left private practice for Ant Group in 2016 and in his latest move he has “graduated” from Web2 to Web3.

Nick Abrahams, global co-leader of digital transformation at Norton Rose Fulbright, is another example. My colleague Chris Niesche recently wrote a feature about him. Abrahams not only rolled with the digital age, he lapped it all up. Out of Australia, where Abrahams is based, he led the rollout of the world’s first privacy chatbot, he talked about robots taking over for lawyers, and just last week, he posted on LinkedIn about being an auctioneer of a non-fungible token artwork. He is the firm’s showman for all things digital.

But that also makes me wonder if law firms are willing to go against their archaic practices and let junior lawyers be the face of their Web3 offerings? Will senior associates, by merit, be allowed to go out and pitch for work in that space and pocket the origination fee, bypassing partners who may be less qualified to speak and advise on the topic? Will associates be encouraged to build their own books without ruffling some partner feathers?

Law firms have to keep up, even if it’s off the backs of their young associates—a strange proposition for a law firm, I know. During my chat with Bai, he posited that digital currencies will, in upcoming decades, be just as important as fiat currencies.

Clients executing simple investments, particularly those involving digital assets, may soon be frowning when firms say they cannot accept payments in bitcoin. I know a few firms in Asia, including Singapore’s Rajah & Tann, are already exploring bitcoin payments. Kudos to them.

Now, after months of reading and writing about all things metaverse, I think I now know less than when I started. There’s simply too much to digest. Each time I think I know a bit more, what’s left to discover leaves me feeling like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

In fact, I wrote about an NFT dispute a few weeks ago. After my article was published, I joked with an editor that when I read the description of why that particular NFT was worth over US$300,000—that it was worth so much because “it is a ‘virgin ape’”—meaning it has “not been fed with mutant serum”—I just had to walk away from my desk and take a breath.

It’s still all too out there for me.

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