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Cannabis law is a relatively new area of law that provides the perfect combination of passion and problem solving and requires a unique skill set compared to more conventional fields of law. Lawyers from all backgrounds can use their existing skillsets and experience in non-cannabis practice areas and apply them to meet the legal needs of the cannabis industry.
In 2014, I was a partner at a law firm in Chicago where I worked as a litigator, representing businesses as a plaintiff or defendant in court. At the time, the legal cannabis industry was taking off in Illinois. In my journey to find a role that I was truly passionate about, I decided to become an attorney in this nascent space.
I began representing Green Thumb Industries as their outside counsel in 2014 before moving in-house. Over the past seven years, I’ve watched law firms and businesses transition from questioning whether attorneys can ethically represent cannabis clients to seeking out attorneys with that expertise. Some are even building entire cannabis practice groups law firms to serve the ever-growing client demand.
Many attorneys considering pivoting into the high-growth cannabis industry have approached me for advice. Here are seven things I tell them.
1. Do your homework
Know state regulations and identify what specific industry sectors you want to work in before you start networking. Cannabis may be a relatively young industry, but the regulated space is incredibly nuanced and diverse.
Because legalization is still being driven at the state level, each distinct market abides by its own set of regulations. Laws vary regarding medical and adult-use consumption, taxation, potency, safety testing, retail marketing, types of products that can be sold, and how and where flower is cultivated. The governing bodies overseeing legal operations can also vary significantly. So you must have a fundamental understanding of your state’s regulations if you want to be considered as a serious legal candidate.
Additionally, you must understand what type of cannabis law you want to practice. Do you intend to represent plant-touching or ancillary businesses? While you do not have to commit to a specific lane for the rest of your career, proactively identifying the specific services and skills required on each side can help you recognize the right opportunities while you’re interviewing. There is now an abundance of educational resources to understand how your state’s market operates. Don’t ask people in the industry for their time until you’ve done your homework on the basics.
2. Pursue opportunities on your own time and on your own dime
Before you leave your mainstream corporate law job, be sure to tailor your professional brand to reflect your new interests and potential career. Offer to give a continuing education presentation on a specific topic to your bar association, local library, law firm, or cannabis organization. Other ways to demonstrate your proficiency in cannabis law? Write an article for your firm or a bar association website on a cannabis legal topic that interests you. Or offer pro bono services in your area of expertise to a social equity applicant or licensee.
3. Be flexible with your hourly rate
Many startups who may need legal assistance but not a full legal team likely don’t have the budget to afford hourly rates. If you are brand new to cannabis law, think of these short-term opportunities as a way to gain practical experience and see if this is actually for you. Being flexible with your rates ultimately opens more doors to meet and work with various industry stakeholders, which will undoubtedly pay off in the long run.
4. Don’t think of cannabis law as a “lifestyle” practice or a “break” from hard work
The cannabis industry may have a laid-back persona, but it can be a very volatile and complex space not for the faint of heart. Regulations and business strategies are constantly changing －and it’s your job to stay on top of these fluctuations. The founders and employees at successful cannabis startups often work around the clock, so your client will expect you to be available on nights and weekends without complaint.
More importantly, your success in this role is often determined by how well you know your client. Cannabis businesses are not a monolith, and each clients’ needs and situations are different. Spend the time to learn where your client fits into the cannabis industry and master the ins and outs of their specific sector and consumer audience. State and federal regulations around cultivation, retailing, and manufacturing can change at a moment’s notice －and any oversight on your end could potentially lead to a disruption in your clients’ operations or worse, your client losing their license.
5. Play a role in rectifying the War on Drugs
If you used to be a state or federal prosecutor, you must recognize that the War on Drugs did irreparable damage to many marginalized communities over the past 50 years. And if you worked for a government agency, you were likely directly or indirectly part of the machinery that disproportionately jailed Black and brown people for possession or sale of cannabis. Now that cannabis is legal in your state, you can’t just profit from the same plant and disregard the painful history of prohibition. Be ready to demonstrate that you care about the harms done by the War on Drugs and that you are willing to “walk the walk.” Support expungement efforts, offer pro bono services to help formerly incarcerated individuals reenter the workforce, and advocate for tangible criminal justice reform.
While there is no pressure to consume cannabis, you’re expected to never judge those who do. Everyone in the industry spends all day fighting the stigma around this miracle plant – don’t bring the stigma inside.
6. Take ownership of your career
Your clients take risks daily to build a business in a federally illegal industry. Be willing to take risks, too. Speak up at your law firm if you are initially told that you can’t represent a cannabis client. Speak proudly and loudly about your cannabis practice to friends and colleagues. Use your advocacy skills to fight for the normalization and legitimacy of the cannabis industry.
7. Find connections or mentors who align with your professional goals
Use the usual tools like LinkedIn and Google to find lawyers in your practice area in the cannabis industry and reach out to them with specific intentions of what you want to learn. Even better, show up at local cannabis networking events, regardless of whether or not they are geared to lawyers, to build your cannabis network. If you want to jump in quickly, be willing to stray outside of your current area of expertise because cannabis law is often a hybrid of practice areas, rarely just one, and is constantly evolving. You may need to spend your time researching or consulting other experts – but in the end, gaining a variety of insights will only make the services you offer more valuable to potential clients.
Finally, have fun! There likely isn’t an industry today where the workforce is passionate about promoting change, spreading wellness, and fighting harmful stigmas. Find your rhythm, follow your passion, and be proud to be part of a historical movement!