The challenge for Ksenia Sussman couldn’t have been any clearer. After spending eleven years at Barclays Investment Bank, she elected to move to a start-up. “Entering a start-up world is completely different from a traditional, established, conservative three-hundred-year-old institution,” Sussman sums up. Barclays was founded in London in 1690—a start-up of sorts, just one founded the same year the clarinet was invented.
In taking on the general counsel role at BitOoda, founded in 2017, the company’s sole in-house lawyer doesn’t just oversee anything that might be considered of legal note. She’s also the lock-and-key protector of the pioneering company, whose aim is to deliver transparency and promote normalization of industry practices in the digital asset space. Sussman didn’t just move to a start-up; she moved to a start-up operating in a space with minimal legal precedent and only the most rudimentary understanding by the wider public.
Operating Conservatively in the Unknown
While blockchain, bitcoin, and digital currency may have made their way around the headlines, the burgeoning financial digital assets industry is still a nascent one in terms of regulation and adoption of standardized practices and procedures. “We’re operating in a world with very low legal certainty,” Sussman says frankly. “From the legal and business perspective, I think we operate with a more conservative approach precisely due to this fact.”
Being on the forefront of the digital initiative offers BitOoda a well-deserved voice in the conversation, but Sussman says that it can be difficult figuring out which conversation they’re supposed to be a part of. Determining the jurisdictions and regulatory institutions with which the company is looking to comply is hardly well defined.
It’s motivated BitOoda to work with organizations like the Association for Digital Asset Markets (ADAM) to develop norms in practices and policies. “There are industry participants who clearly want to operate in a fully regulatory compliant manner,” Sussman says. “But we also need guidance from regulators to tell us what the rules are, not just enforce guidelines they have not officially defined. We should all proactively help this industry develop standards that work with regulators.”
The One and Only
Operating as the sole lawyer at BitOoda after spending a decade deep diving into commodities and strategic investments, Sussman says, is a lot like jumping from a passenger liner onto a sailboat. “I’m now part of this whole operation, as opposed to doing my one small job that’s part of a much bigger thing,” Sussman says. “You’re making sure the sails go up, you’re catching the wind—and even shifting your weight if you need to. It’s up to you as much as everyone else to make sure you’re going in the right direction.”
That doesn’t mean Sussman is doing it all. “We interviewed a lot of companies and firms to find the right fit for us as far as outside counsel and collaborators,” Sussman says. “We have to make sure they not only understand our needs but the issues that accompany our business. Whether you’re hiring someone internally or as a consultant, you’re effectively asking them to act as your right hand, and so that took us time.”
Full Speed Ahead, Slowly
Part of what drew Sussman to BitOoda is her love of disruptive technologies. “I want to continue to be a lawyer who is a business partner that effectively helps companies in those nascent stages navigate new rules and regulations,” the GC says. “At the same time, I want to help disrupt traditional financial business and ways of doing that business through the utilization of new technologies.”
Sussman is in a rare and enviable position of being able to help break new business ground in a developing industry, not just from the legal department but as a trusted advisor to the business.
For those seeking to emulate Sussman’s ability to jump from the rock solid into the unknown, Sussman says it’s fairly simple. “Just keep an open mind and be willing to learn as much as you can,” the GC says. “At a small institution, a lawyer is going to be called to work on things that may not seem like a strictly legal function, but you have to remember that you’re on the sailboat and embrace that.”
Sullivan & Cromwell:
“Ksenia Sussman has made extraordinary contributions to the development of the legal and regulatory regime for innovative financial services.”
– David Gilberg, Partner