Brian Klein may not be a household name in the blockchain space, but several of his clients – Erik Voorhees, Charlie Shrem and Block.one, to name a few – certainly are. The self-described “high-stakes trial attorney” has exploded onto the scene in recent years as a successful defender in numerous civil and criminal cases in the technology and cryptocurrency worlds.
He’s now representing Virgil Griffith, the Ethereum developer and former Ethereum Foundation head of special projects accused by the U.S. government of traveling to North Korea to speak at a conference and discuss sanctions evasion using cryptocurrency.
In January, Griffith confidently entered an “innocent” plea before a district judge, kicking off the months-long, multi-step discovery and eventual trial process which Klein hopes will lead to an acquittal.
CoinDesk met with Klein in mid-December, partly in the hopes that he would chat about this case but largely to get a sense of the attorney whose name kept popping up on the radar.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he declined to comment about Griffith’s case beyond previous statements declaring his belief that his client would be exonerated. Dressed in a plaid shirt and gray jacket, he shared his insights on litigating in the fintech space, working with entrepreneurs and crypto overall.
“It’s very enjoyable representing entrepreneurs and founders, they’re the people really building the industry,” Klein said of crypto, a space where he’s worked since 2013.
“I think a lot of people in this space feel a lot of camaraderie with each other even though it's a competitive space and that makes the industry a lot of fun to work for,” he said. “There’s no reason you can’t have lots of digital currencies, lots of tokens out there. I think it’s vindication.”
‘Libertarian by nature’
Klein began his legal career at the New York University School of Law, has lived on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. and is now a partner at Baker Marquart LLP. In his past, he’s worked at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, Skadden Arps, Brafman & Associates and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
He had the option of continuing to work at large law firms but chose to join Baker Marquart, a small, Los Angeles-based law firm boasting fewer than 20 trial lawyers on its website, said Klein, who will speak Monday at Consensus: Distributed.
“I wanted to represent [both] individuals and companies and it’s really hard to do both at big law firms because of conflicts,” he explained.
He joined Baker Marquart in 2012 and entered the crypto space a year later after reading guidance from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and writing an article on the subject.
“I’m a libertarian by nature and I have a lot of issues with how big finance is [treated] globally, and in our country, and it leaves a lot of people outside looking in,” he said, referring to un- and underbanked individuals unable to access the modern financial system.
While Klein’s record is prominent, his peers were downright effusive. David Silver, a prominent litigator in the crypto space in his own right, told CoinDesk that Klein provides “the best representation possible by the best lawyer available.”
“I only hope I never need his counsel, but if I did I would hire him in a second,” he said.
Likewise, Compound Finance General Counsel Jake Chervinsky told CoinDesk that Klein is “one of the best defense attorneys in the crypto industry.”
Marcia Hoffman, who joined Klein in representing cybersecurity researcher Marcus Hutchins, told CoinDesk Klein’s first reaction to a new case is to determine “how do we get a handle on what’s happening.”
“He will just come right in and immediately is thinking about ‘how do we get this situation under control,’ ‘how do we put ourselves in the best position moving forward,’ which can be really stressful,” she said.
Friendly, but efficient
Over a breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and a bagel at a downtown Manhattan hotel – and later, during a hearing – Klein maintained a soft-spoken tone but projected confidence in his past work and future efforts.
Several of his former clients described him as a friendly, personable attorney. Two of them, noted bitcoin entrepreneur Shrem and Hutchins (otherwise known as MalwareTech, one of the researchers who halted the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017), both said Klein spoke to them as friends outside their legal cases.
“I still talk to him very frequently just about life in general,” Shrem told CoinDesk.
His personable manner was on display during Griffith’s arraignment. Prior to the hearing’s start, Klein appeared to be reassuring his client while sorting the case’s projected timeline.
“It’s okay,” Klein told Griffith after sidebarring with the assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case. Then the two men sat down and began a protracted, whispered conversation.
As a lawyer, Klein “managed expectations very well,” Shrem said, referring to the expectations Klein set for his case and how he predicted certain options would play out.
As a client, Shrem said he never felt like he’d lost control of his case. Among other details, he praised Klein’s management style, saying Klein coordinated his team of attorneys to minimize the costs to Shrem during a case against Winklevoss Capital Management, the family office started by Gemini founders Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.
Klein said he’s available 24/7 for his clients, and while “it’s sometimes disruptive to your personal life,” he’s found it’s helped him overall.
Hutchins said Klein had checked in during holidays and invited him to several events during his time in the U.S. (A U.K. resident, Hutchins was unable to leave the U.S. during his case.)
“My impression is that he's a great lawyer but also a kind person. He took my case pro-bono because I didn't have the money to afford legal counsel,” Hutchins said. “I've also seen him go out of his way to help out people in similar situations.”
Still, his friendliness doesn’t stop Klein from winning his high-profile cases. Hutchins was sentenced to supervised release and the judge in his case advocated for a full pardon; Shrem won $45,000 in legal fees after settling the Winklevoss’s case against him (the twins’ lawyer was fined $15,000 for “improper behavior” during the case); and Block.One agreed to pay $24 million in a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, with the agency granting a waiver essentially ensuring the EOS token is not deemed a security.
Klein told CoinDesk he’s bullish over the long term about cryptocurrencies, citing bitcoin’s status as a form of digital money not controlled by any government or single, centralized entity.
Still, he said, “I think there’s a lot of work to do here.”
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