Ava Labs Inc., a blockchain startup founded by a Cornell University professor, has hired financial services and technology expert Lee Schneider as its first-ever legal and public policy leader.
Schneider, whose title at Ava Labs will be general counsel, comes to the company after spending more than three years as general counsel for Peter Thiel-backed blockchain software developer Block.one LLC.
“He remains a doyen of the blockchain industry and we wish him well in his new role,” Block.one chief legal officer Alex Erasmus said in a statement confirming Schneider’s departure.
At Ava Labs, which operates the open-source Avalanche platform for decentralized financial applications, Schneider will oversee both legal and government affairs.
“I was one of the early outside lawyers to do work in the crypto and blockchain space,” Schneider said in an interview with Bloomberg Law. “There’s a lot of movement going on right now. When I was interviewing with Ava Labs, I was talking at various points with five other places about potential jobs.”
Ava Labs was started in 2018 by Emin Gün Sirer, a Turkish-American computer scientist and associate professor at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is co-director of the school’s Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts. Gün, as he’s known to friends and colleagues, per a 2017 Bloomberg News profile, has long been an academic expert on blockchain technology.
That same year, Schneider left the partnership at McDermott Will & Emery in New York, where he had joined the law firm only a few months earlier from Debevoise & Plimpton, to take the general counsel role at Block.one.
Schneider has seen first-hand how hot the legal market is for digital currency experts. There’s been a surge in demand for in-house legal talent in part because so many blockchain companies have grown in size, he said.
Bloomberg News reported that cryptocurrency companies received more funding in the first quarter of this year than all of 2020.
“This is not just a function of the fact that the price of crypto assets is higher, but that there’s so much more interest in the space from an investment and enterprise standpoint,” Schneider said. “We’re seeing a huge amount of growth in the number of projects out there and therefore the need for lawyers to work with them.”
It was Ava Labs president John Wu, a Cornell alum who has recently spoken with Bloomberg News about the booming cryptocurrency market, who helped recruit Schneider to the company. Schneider said he’s known Wu for several years and took a call from him in February seeking recommendations about a potential new general counsel for Ava Labs.
Schneider told Wu he was thinking about a new job himself. After going over several other job offers, Schneider said he decided Ava Labs was the best of the bunch.
“Few people understand the legal and regulatory issues in our space as well as Lee,” Wu said in a statement. “We are thrilled to add his expertise and vision for making legal part of a winning strategy for Ava Labs and projects we’re supporting on Avalanche.”
The company launched its Avalanche protocol last September and specializes in software that seeks to make blockchain payments faster, somewhat akin to more centralized payments systems, as noted last year by Bloomberg News.
“Ava Labs, at least in my mind, is tackling a broader diversity of things right now, and that was really what attracted me to the job,” said Schneider, adding he’s unsure whether he’ll be replaced at Block.one. “It’s an exciting time to be a lawyer in the space and I’m glad to be at an exciting company to do it.”
Erasmus, a former Clifford Chance finance partner in London who since 2018 has served as Block.one’s Hong Kong-based legal chief, said the company is grateful for Schneider’s contributions over the past three years.
“In his role, Lee led our public policy initiatives and reported to me,” Erasmus said. “As our businesses have matured, the decision has been taken that public policy initiatives will be embedded in our business units themselves to address issues specific to them and we do not currently intend to replace the role.”
Schneider and his wife relocated from New York to Florida in February. While he will work remotely part of the time, Schneider will also frequent Ava Labs’ offices in New York and Miami. The company, which is backed by venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz, Initialized Capital Management LLC, and Polychain Capital LLC, also has an office in San Francisco.
Ava Labs has no immediate plans to increase the size of its in-house legal team, staffed solely by Schneider, but the company’s new top lawyer said he’ll evaluate such needs going forward. Schneider declined to discuss the names of the outside law firms that he said have been advising Ava Labs.