It's no secret that blockchain and cryptocurrency are fast-growing specializations within the financial industry—JPMorgan Chase & Co. just tested its own digital currency—and law firms are busily snatching up lawyers with expertise in the emerging fields.
Major, Lindsey & Africa managing director Brian Burlant, who recruits for law firms and in-house legal departments, said it’s been hard to keep up with demand for attorneys who understand the promise and risks associated with the technologies, as well as those with expertise in digital privacy.
Blockchain’s applications extend far beyond heavily publicized cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, and include accounting, supply chain logistics, health care and advertising.
“What I am seeing in blockchain and in crypto is that firms are cautiously making forays into this space—feeling out for talent, trying to assess where are the trends from their clients coming; so it is very much a work in progress and everyone expects the weight of business to increase,” Burlant said. “We have also seen lawyers entering this space from regulatory practices or government, specifically securities regulation and white-collar/investigations practices, as regards to cryptocurrencies in particular,” he added.
Mary K. Young, a partner at Zeughauser Group, the law firm consultancy, said privacy law has also grown tremendously, “and my own experience backs that up, based on marketing research I did a year ago and also my experience with clients. Most global and national firms have added significant capabilities in privacy and data security in the last five years,” she said.
Mary K. Young, partner at Zeughauser Group
Examples of recent lateral moves across these fields include Andrew “Drew” Hinkes, who joined Carlton Fields’ chain and digital currency practice in Miami as of counsel earlier this year, while also serving as chief legal officer for investment tech firm Athena Blockchain Inc.; J.R.Lanis, who arrived at Polsinelli in Los Angeles as a shareholder and chair of the West Coast corporate and securities practice from Drinker Biddle; and David Katz, a partner in Adams and Reese’s privacy, cybersecurity and data management practice who joined the firm in Atlanta in February from Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.
“I think that the blockchain space was extremely popular for lawyers toward the end of 2017, and then the cryptocurrency crash happened, and a lot of lawyers who were working in crypto or blockchain went back quietly to whatever they were doing before, like Silicon Valley in the '90s" said Lanis. "Those who have stuck with it will continue to see a lot of activity in this area.”
Privacy law is heating up as more and more countries and states regulate enterprises that store and utilize vast amounts of personal data and transmit it via the internet, Burlant said. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect last May, and the similar California Consumer Privacy Act signed into law last year and effective January 2020, are examples of burgeoning data privacy regulation across the globe. A proposed amendment to California’s law also would give a private right of action to consumers within the state whose rights are violated under the law, which potentially could expose companies to a flood of lawsuits.
Young said lateral hiring is increasing at both large and small firms as they try to build up their practices in data privacy and security. Firms are also promoting associates with relevant expertise from within both their corporate and litigation ranks. She said lawyers starting their careers can prepare by seeking out firms known for their privacy or blockchain/cryptocurrency practices.
Brian Burlant, with Major, Lindsey & Africa.
“A person coming out of law school can look for a firm known for this, a marquee name. They do the work for people who can train them. It is very complex work because it involves technology and technical knowledge.”
A science and technology background, or at least familiarity, is a plus for anyone hoping to get a foothold in this growing specialty, but practitioners are not all science and tech majors, Burlant said. "For law students and those early in their legal careers, coupling a practical business approach with a working understanding of the technology is a good way to go," he said. "Emerging and Fortune 500 companies are taking the lead in applying these technologies; there will be opportunities in representing clients in both sectors.”
He said demand is such that even lawyers from law schools outside the usual “Top 14” have been able to parlay specialized expertise into Big Law firms.
But he advises, “don’t focus on the crypto, focus on the blockchain. It will be a game changer.”