Norton Rose Fulbright’s Albert Weatherill explains how he got into digital currencies and discusses the cutting-edge work he does for clients in the space
Albert Weatherill, counsel in Norton Rose Fulbright’s (NRF) financial services group, feels like he’s had a front row seat to change in financial services. “Our clients are doing visionary things that could change the way we think about financial services,” he explains, “and it’s very interesting to help support them build out their visions.”
Weatherill, who studied philosophy as an undergraduate, has taken his university experience of constructing and evaluating difficult, often abstract concepts and combined it with his inquisitive nature to take his career in a surprisingly techy direction. Although, like most lawyers, he has always been “better with words than numbers”, his propensity for taking on new challenges and a long-standing interest in technology led him toward fintech and particularly crypto, which is now a key component of his practice.
At the beginning of his career at NRF, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were starting to gain some interest beyond niche corners of the internet. Weatherill and other members of the NRF Fintech team began developing thought leadership in this area as cryptocurrencies became better understood and the demand for legal and regulatory expertise in this space grew exponentially. The firm was well-placed for the 2017 boom, a market development which saw cryptocurrencies hit all-time highs and grab more mainstream appeal for the first time, and for what came after, with expansions in crypto infrastructure, high levels of capital in flows and increasing institutional interest.
This subsequent boom in crypto-related work has brought a “real mix of clients” that goes far beyond just tech start-ups. This means that Weatherill has been working on everything from token issuances (a method of raising finances and enabling broader public involvement in a project) and yield farming (staking or lending one’s tokens in return for interest and rewards) on defi protocols (a financial services provider that does not rely on intermediaries) to new developments in crypto exchanges, custodians and payment services, as well as helping institutional clients to better understand the risks and rewards of the crypto space.
“There are lots of variants in both the types of clients and work you are dealing with,” Weatherill says. “There’s also the constant challenge of tackling new problems, but it’s great to work alongside such talented people on these novel issues.” He confesses to getting a “sense of pride” when “you see a piece of work you have been doing in the FT or when you see clients announce new products or services that you supported them on” and to being a frequent customer of the tools his clients are developing. “I like to be a customer as well as an advisor. It gives me an inside track on how users experience these products, helps me understand my clients’ brands and product sets and better positions me to advise them,” he says.
The lowdown on the evolving regulatory landscape is that “we’ve seen increasing regulatory focus on crypto with a small amount of case law addressing key questions relating to the legal nature of crypto beginning to come through”, as regulators like the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) try to find “a balance between protecting consumers from harm whilst seeking to promote innovation”. In the UK, change is coming both from the common law and policy suggestions from the Law Commission, which recently proposed the creation of a new category of property for cryptoassets. In this global industry, legal and regulatory developments move at different paces and, at times, in different directions. This has the potential, Weatherill notes, to create “regulatory arbitrage”. Whilst that can at times be “frustrating” for those looking to build projects with users all over the world, it is an “inevitable consequence of global adoption of a novel and nascent asset class” such as crypto.
So, what are the key skills that make a good crypto lawyer? “You need to be inquisitive, curious and want to grow technically,” says Weatherill. But he stresses that “the key difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer is commerciality”.
“You need to really know the sector, to understand your clients’ commercial objectives and their pain points in order to offer technical yet pragmatic, commercial advice.” While it is easy to get bogged down in the legal nuances, it’s important to “focus on delivering advice that has high usability” so that clients can make informed decisions that take into account their particular circumstances. It also helps that NRF has a “broad, well established and highly respected practice in this sector” and the client network that comes with that.
If you’re interested in crypto and think NRF would be a great place to start out your legal career, Weatherill offers this advice: “We want to see a real and genuine passion and interest in something, as well as a hunger to learn.” His top tips include getting stuck into a wide range of resources from newspapers to podcasts and information on social media, which is sometimes the best way of directly accessing insightful material from market leaders and pioneering thinkers in a particular sector.
Albert Weatherill will be speaking at ‘Crypto and the future of finance’, a virtual student event taking place on Tuesday, 20 September. Apply now.