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Steptoe & Johnson Opens Bitcoin and Blockchain Practice

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 11, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

BigLaw is moving into the cryptocurrency sphere, now that Steptoe and Johnson have announced that they're opening a blockchain and digital currency practice. Blockchain is the technology that underlies Bitcoin and other alternative digital currencies. It's been hailed as potentially revolutionary, capable of transforming everything from the legal sphere, to land registries, to international finance.

"The blockchain, like the internet, is going to have an impact on just about every existing type of institution in the years ahead," according to Jason Weinstein, the Steptoe partner co-leading the new practice area. And when that digital technology leads to real-world legal issues, Steptoe wants to be the BigLaw firm clients turn to first.

Steptoe's Technological Background

The partners helming Steptoe's new practice area are well-versed in the confluence of new technology and the law. Prior to moving to Steptoe, Weinstein led the Department of Justice's cybercrime efforts, according to Forbes. He'll be joined by Alan Cohn, who has previously overseen cyber policy at the Department of Homeland Security.

The practice will expand on Steptoe's existing involvement in blockchain technology. The firm is an advisor to the Chamber of Digital Commerce and the Coin Center, Forbes reports, "two of the industry's most active advocacy groups."

Breaking Ground in Blockchain and the Law

As the blockchain spreads from the techie fringes into government, legal, and financial applications, it's bound to raise significant legal issues. Cohn points to smart contracts as just one example. Smart contracts can be written, or coded, to be self-executing and verified by the blockchain, creating a public record of the contract's execution.

But, of course, things aren't that simple. Cohn tells Forbes:

So in just something as simple as applying a smart contract to a research and insurance contract, you basically have to go back through the principles that underlie that area of the industry -- how insurance contracts work, how they're interpreted, what presumptions are used, and really examine them in the way that a smart contract on the blockchain would work.

If Steptoe's new blockchain practice area takes off, you could soon see other BigLaw firms following suit: an Ethereum practice for Orrick, perhaps, or a Dogecoin focus for Debevoise.

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