At traditional financial services companies, bitcoin can sound like a bad word.
“If you’re stupid enough to buy it, you’ll pay the price for it one day,” JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon said of the digital currency at an Institute of International Finance conference this September.
Mark Wiedman, a senior managing director at the mega-investment firm BlackRock Inc., told a Bloomberg LP interviewer recently: “I don’t get the point of a bitcoin ETF.” Wiedman added that he wouldn’t tell clients to invest in bitcoin.
But even as top guns at big banks and investment firms are bad-mouthing bitcoin, they expect their outside law firms to be engaged in the cryptocurrency world—and especially the underlying blockchain technology that is being billed as the next big fintech innovation.
Gregory Lisa, a partner focused on financial services regulation at Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C., said financial companies that publicly disparage bitcoin still prize the digital currency expertise.
“No one wants an attorney or firm who is not well-versed in this space,” Lisa said. “Many of the financial institutions are acutely interested in it,” he said, noting they expect change to come to their industry as it always has. “None of these institutions have existed in a static environment,” he said.
“Whether bitcoin gets critical mass—if it isn’t already there—there is a certain blockchain reality now,” he said. “The most dangerous guy in the room is the guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” Lisa added.
Traditional financial institutions also may see more business opportunities tied to bitcoin and related technologies than their CEOs’ boisterous objections would suggest.
“At the end of the day, even the most innovative fintech company still needs a bank to operate an account to pay their rent,” Lisa said.
Jay Baris, a partner at Morrison & Foerster in New York and chair of its investment management practice, said several financial services clients have come to the firm with cryptocurrency questions.
“We’ve given several presentations. No one knows where this is going,” and they want to know, he said.
Law firms are competing fast to be the ones providing the answers.
Cooley partner Marco Santori, a blockchain expert who moved to the firm from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman last year, is chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation Regulatory Affairs Committee. In August, Baker & Hostetler, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe became part of a new group called the Global Legal Blockchain Consortium, which aims to set standards around the interoperability and security of blockchain systems. More recently, Morris, Manning, & Martin in Atlanta and K&L Gates, based in Pittsburgh, touted new initiatives related to blockchain.
For his own part, Morrison & Foerster’s Baris suspects he may have made missteps in his own investment portfolio—having bought bitcoin when it was at $85, then selling it at $135 on a hunch that it “was going to come crashing down,” he recalled.
Now that its price has reached $5,000, Baris joked, “That is why I’m a lawyer, not an investor.”