Binance’s New General Counsel On the Cutting Edge of Crypto Regulation
By Alys Key
For Binance’s newly-appointed General Counsel Eleanor Hughes, one of the most exciting aspects of the job is working on the frontier of an industry that is still new.
“Every day I’m faced with a legal question which there’s no precedent for,” Hughes explained on a call with Decrypt.
To tackle these, she and the team turn to examples in other jurisdictions, comparable situations in traditional finance, and general legal principles. But because crypto is its own category, she sees it as a lawyer’s job to navigate those differences.
With 15 years of experience, she is well-equipped for the task—and there’s plenty to keep her occupied. Binance has secured licenses or registrations in 17 jurisdictions around the world, and is looking into more.
Hughes has become a trusted advisor to Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, Binance’s founder and CEO.
“One of the reasons I like working at Binance, and working with CZ, is he is open to views,” says Hughes.
Upon her appointment as General Counsel earlier this month, CZ said he was “confident that our industry-leading legal team will continue to flourish in its mission to always protect users and manage risks on our platform” with Hughes at the helm.
Eleanor has been in this role for a couple of months already. We don't make big splashes or emphasis title changes. However, this role is gonna have an impact on the industry as a whole. And I am confident Eleanor will continue to excel. 👏
— CZ 🔶 Binance (@cz_binance) July 13, 2023
The job is particularly satisfying, she says, because unlike working at a law firm, you actually get to see how your advice is put into practice.
“It’s kind of a two-way street as well,” she says, explaining how the rich expertise of her colleagues has helped to shape her understanding of the space. “If I've got a question—and I had so many questions when I started—about how the products work, how the technology works […] it was just so easy for me to ask.”
Hughes has a wealth of experience in the legal world; after graduating from Cambridge, she worked at major law firms in London, Paris, Singapore and Hong Kong.
“I knew that I didn't want to be in private practice long-term, and when I came back from maternity leave after my second child, I knew that I wanted something different,” she says. “I wanted somewhere I knew I was going to learn really quickly.”
She did just that, joining Binance in late 2021, then quickly being promoted to head of legal for the Asia-Pacific and Middle East & North Africa regions. In that role, she was instrumental in securing regulatory approvals from the likes of Bahrain, Dubai, and New Zealand.
As Binance’s chief in-house lawyer, she will oversee the legal team and also work closely with the compliance department.
As well as actively pursuing more licenses, Binance is also taking part in conversations with regulators at every opportunity. It’s a crucial time: many countries are considering what the future could look like for digital assets on their shores, and are holding consultations that invite input from key players. As the industry leader, Binance has submitted responses to consultations everywhere from Australia to Abu Dhabi.
For Hughes, that means keeping on top of what’s going on around the world, even if it means working longer hours. “I don’t want to miss out on any of the conversations,” she told Decrypt. “I do have to be a little more disciplined about going to sleep,” she admits.
Hughes sees Binance as having a responsibility to help protect consumers while allowing room for crypto technology to innovate.
To keep up with the rate at which crypto regulation is evolving, Binance has scooped up a raft of legal experts. Though she joined less than two years ago, Hughes has seen the legal team grow from around 15 people to its current size of over 80 lawyers.
“I’m really proud of the team here,” she says. “It’s a group of talented professionals, some with regulatory backgrounds, a lot with private practice experience, but all of them have great skills and have been able to really learn about the business.”
In collaboration with the company’s compliance team, Binance’s legal division is keeping an eye on the long-term trends that will shape the regulatory picture in years to come, as well as reacting to fresh developments. As Hughes says, “things pop up every single day."
Some positive recent developments have included the European Union’s development of crypto rules, which Hughes calls “unique work.”
“It will really help the industry,” she says. “It's going to be a kind of benchmark.”
But all regulators have their own way of working, she adds, so her focus is on building that collaborative approach and trust with the relevant agencies.
Though some are still skeptical of the crypto world, she is hopeful that there will be a shift in the coming year as the concepts become more familiar.
“There’s always some fear of the unknown,” she says. “One of the things I hope is people fear crypto much less because they come to understand it, and that people recognise that crypto is a force for good. That’s where I hope that the focus lies moving forward.”
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