Most Innovative Emerging Company Legal Department of the Year: Coinbase

(L to R) Juan Suarez, VP Legal; Maribeth Bushey, Disputes & Regulatory Counsel; Brian Brooks, Chief Legal Officer;
Tara Shine, Commercial Counsel; Michael Cianfrani, Litigation Program Manager and Brittany Cuthbert, Commercial Counsel. Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM

Recognizing a need in the cryptocurrency industry, the legal team at San Francisco-based digital currency exchange Coinbase developed a securities rating scorecard to assess the risk that any particular digital asset may be a security subject to certain regulatory scrutiny. The Coinbase team has shared its scorecard with state and federal regulators and promoted it as a self-help tool to help the industry keep an eye on securities law compliance.

That work and spirit of collaboration landed Coinbase as the Most Innovative Emerging Company Legal Department of the Year as part of The Recorder’s the California Leaders in Tech Law and Innovation Awards. The Recorder asked Brian Brooks, the chief legal officer at Coinbase, about the challenges he and his colleagues have faced in the past year.

The Recorder: What are the distinguishing characteristics of Coinbase’s in-house legal department and the lawyers and staff that make it up?

Brian Brooks: The Coinbase legal team is made up of a diverse set of talented lawyers and legal professionals, who deliver excellent legal services in a hyper-growth environment to an organization with the mission of building an open financial system for the world. The legal team includes lawyers with backgrounds that range from traditional finance and regulated industries like energy and fintech, to today’s top tech companies as well as the best law firms in the country.

Every day, we embody the Coinbase values: efficient execution, positive energy, continuous learning and clear communication. These characteristics are needed to provide the level of legal services the organization requires in the rapidly changing cryptocurrency ecosystem.

What was the biggest challenge your in-house team faced in the past year and how did you overcome it?

The rate of product development increased significantly in the past year, and so we had to do some fundamental thinking about the design of our organization and whether we were structured to provide the level of service the clients need. The result was a reorganization that separated the regulatory functions from the product functions and thus allows us to (a) advocate with our regulators more effectively and (b) better serve our in-house clients.

Coinbase has gone from a narrower set of product offerings in a limited geographical area, to a global group of companies offering multi-faceted crypto-related financial services. Our employee count more than tripled in less than a year. This rapid growth and expansion required the legal team to produce scalable legal solutions to help the business build the foundation of the crypto-economy and continue to move at light speed.

Reorganizing our legal team product and regulatory functions enabled us to provide the highest level of client service while simultaneously prioritizing and strengthening our regulatory relationships.

Besides that challenge, what was your legal department’s most significant accomplishment of the past year and why?

Regulatory uncertainty was undermining nearly every product decision facing the company. The legal team developed a repeatable and objective process for evaluating listing potential of new assets with our Digital Asset Launch Group. We worked with independent outside counsel to refine this process, blind-testing and repeating until objectivity and consistency were established.

The legal team communicated directly with regulators to keep them informed about the process for assisting the company with listing decisions. The ultimate result is the Crypto Rating Council, a consortium of cryptocurrency companies that is navigating the uncharted waters of the cryptocurrency ecosystem.

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