I like being a cannabis business lawyer. It took a while for me to get there. I certainly didn’t think I would be doing this while I was in law school, or at the start of my career. Like a lot of things in life, it just sort of… happened. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are three areas of advice for anyone looking at a career advising cannabis businesses.
Learn business law
This is what I always told the law students passionate about the space. Learn business transactional law, or civil litigation, or real property, or intellectual property, or whatever regime seems interesting to you for the purpose of advising cannabis businesses. If you’re a new lawyer and you gain exposure to civil litigation–inside or outside of the cannabis space–this is especially valuable. You’ll be a much better transactional lawyer in the end.
In the early days of cannabis lawyering, new lawyers could get away with advising primarily on compliance and conflicts in law issues. Those days are gone. Most of the state regimes are relatively settled, and the incoming states are mostly variations on a theme. You may see a rush of compliance and licensing work at the outset, but it’s tough to make a career out of that.
As to criminal law work, there’s still a need for those services (unfortunately). And there probably always will be, even after cannabis is decriminalized at the federal level. But it’s best to pick a lane. To analogize, if someone were arrested for cannabis possession in an unfriendly jurisdiction, and I were required to represent that person, I’m guessing they’d end up with 10 years in prison if the maximum sentence were 5. I simply have no idea what goes on in drug court or how any of that works. I’ve seen the reverse of this play out many times with criminal lawyers doing business deals.
Get to know regulators
Notwithstanding that first piece of advice (“don’t try to build a career off of compliance”), it’s a good idea to get to know your regulators. Invite them to speak at things, sit on committees, drop a line to weigh in on anything they may find useful– even when you don’t exactly need anything. Some of this is easier in smaller jurisdictions than large ones, but reaching out never hurts. The same advice holds true, I imagine, for lawyering in any heavily regulated industry.
If you’re reasonable and solutions-oriented, regulators may come to trust you. You’ll get a feel for where to go and what to say, how to get valuable information, how to help shape rules and policy, and how to cut a deal. That’s not to say you must accept every position a regulator takes. They definitely get it wrong sometimes. Since the early days in Oregon cannabis, for example, we’ve told OLCC we expect to get along and work together, and that we may sue them here and there. That’s just how it works. People get it.
You don’t have to wear a suit and tie every day (or maybe ever). Sometimes it may be awkward or inappropriate to do so, in fact. You also don’t have to wear cannabis pins or take strong positions on issues like indoor versus outdoor production. The key is to know your audience in each setting. More than that, your analysis, advice, and adherence to the rules of professional conduct must remain above reproach. Cannabis businesses pay lawyers a lot of money and they deserve value in return.
The rules of professional conduct are a big deal when it comes to cannabis lawyering. For attorneys, cannabis is an outlying industry on everything from a lawyer’s ability to advise in the first place, to the endless client conflicts analyses you will need to run in the walled garden of a state cannabis industry. Beyond the rules themselves, you will end up dealing with very informal (and unusual) clients from time to time. Some of these clients will not appreciate the need for basic business formalities, and communications with those clients and counterparties can be challenging. It’s up to you to make it work, or to walk if you have to (and if you can).
Finally, I still think some stigma still exists with cannabis business lawyers. A lot of people have issues with lawyers; others have issues with cannabis; still others have issues with both. When I left a well regarded law firm to do this work early on, a lot of people, and especially other lawyers, seemed to look down on the work. I still think that’s true some extent, and more so for lawyers in conservative geographies (I’m thinking of my home state of North Dakota right now, which may finally come online for adult use cannabis this year). Anyway, those perspectives are just part of lawyering in the industry: hopefully you’re doing it because you like it or you want to make a living. Not to win admirers.
All in all cannabis lawyering isn’t for everyone. However, it’s a dynamic field and it’s an interesting place to be– especially where most other areas of law are comparatively static. Over the past five or six years, it also has been encouraging to see the level of professional services rise to meet the needs of industry. In the next five or six years, it seems certain that many opportunities will arise for cannabis industry lawyers all around the U.S., and even internationally.
Hope to see you on a deal.