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Cannabis Corner: Recruiting In-House Marijuana Attorneys

Matt Fair LAW360.COM

Gigi Birchfield and Ashley McCall, recruiters with legal matchmaker Major Lindsey & Africa, are looking for a very specific person when they’re helping a cannabis business find the right in-house lawyer.

They’re looking for those with a pedigree — prestigious law school, impressive law firm — and a willingness to take a risk on the country’s newest industry.

“I think there is a wide variety of companies looking for counsel,” McCall, a director in Major Lindsey’s in-house practice group, told Law360. “It sort of ranges from the companies that are a little bit more sophisticated and looking for true GCs, all the way to young, startup-y companies that are really looking for more of a corporate counsel-type attorney to come in as their first in-house lawyer.”

Birchfield, managing partner of the in-house practice group, says cannabis companies looking to the future are the ones doing the most hiring.

“It’s an industry that sort of uniquely has a lot of legal needs, so the folks that really anticipate growing and are sophisticated understand they need to start putting the structure in place,” she said.

And as the industry gains a stronger foothold across the country, it’s getting easier and easier to find attorneys willing to make the leap into pot, McCall and Birchfield said.

They spoke with Law360 about what kinds of attorneys their cannabis clients are looking for, and what attorneys interested in the space should know about going in-house. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What kinds of in-house cannabis jobs are out there?

G: The positions have ranged from general counsel at the top of the food chain to regulatory and [intellectual property]. That tends to be the focus, because I think with respect to most of these companies, the regulatory component is obviously so strong — it’s either regulatory and/or compliance, depending on how they want to structure those functions.

A: Some specialties are beginning to build out their departments and make them a little more robust and cover some of the necessary practice areas that are going to impact their business long term.

What should a lawyer who wants to get into the cannabis space have on their resume?

A: From the work that I’ve done, the resume should ideally boast a strong law school, good firm and then a tenure in-house. While potentially large companies are preferred, there’s something to be said — given the fact that you have to be scrappy in this industry — for people who have built out legal at smaller organizations as well. We’ve noticed that for GCs at least, prior experience in highly regulated industries has been a bonus, consumer products has been a bonus.

There is not, however, any sort of prerequisite for a person having done any work in cannabis. I don’t think that attorneys have to worry that they haven’t touched the space yet because if they have a really solid foundation and have worked in a somewhat related industry, they’re going to get some correlation there.

G: I think the ideal profile for them tends to be, as Ashley said, good law school, good foundational law firm training, and then preferably either a bigger company or a very well-known brand. And then maybe a stint at a smaller, scrappier startup to sort of show that, hey, they can kind of do both.

Because the brand is so important to most clients who are really anticipating a lot of growth; they have tended to be drawn to people who have at least some in-house experience at a big brand, whether it's Apple or Nike or something that is pretty recognizable.

Given the newness of the industry, are these jobs open to more junior attorneys who are looking to lead an in-house team?

A: Generally speaking, probably not. It’s like any industry, though. You look at tech, and there are plenty of companies that are generally hiring four- to seven-year attorneys as their general counsel. But those are often not the companies that are on a long-term growth trajectory. For the more sophisticated companies, the companies that you would "want to work for," I think they are focusing on the people who have more experience.

G: If you went online and looked at the postings, there probably is some support for that thesis. Some of these smaller companies that really need a corporate generalist who can really handle a lot of stuff for them, they’re going to hire their first GC, and it will be a junior lawyer. I think that model still exists out there. We so far have tended to be engaged by companies who are really thinking about what the legal department should look like beyond that first lawyer.

Can you describe somebody who was a really good fit for one of your clients?

G: [It was] someone who went to a really good law school, then went to a really good law firm, then went in-house to a couple of sort of larger companies whose names you would recognize, and then kind of took a leap of faith and went to a company that was smaller and more of a startup. They can come over to a cannabis company as the GC, and they’re someone who has done big and small and has also built a legal function and hired and managed people already. They’re already equipped to think about how they want to scale up the legal function as the company scales up.

What are some of the concerns that attorneys considering these jobs have about entering the cannabis industry?

A: Given the ever-changing regulatory landscape and the state vs. federal questions of legality, there is sometimes a concern around being pigeonholed as the pot guy or the pot gal if you spend any time at a cannabis company, and how that will impact your ability to be attractive to potentially more conservative employers. But I have not seen a lot of concern around the product itself, while I’m sure that exists. It has been more around, "How will this affect my reputation and my marketability long term?"

G: I think people who are really very concerned about that state/federal conflict and any sort of potential ethical issues that it raises for them, I think they self-select out. I think the folks that we talk to who are willing to engage about the topic, they are less risk-averse, they’ve done some investigation, they tend to have some experience in a regulated industry already.

How does the pay compare to other companies? How much are these lawyers expected to take a reduction in pay in exchange for something better down the road?

G: It’s not unlike other situations we’ve seen with the startup environment. I think with the cash comp it could be a little bit of a hit, but it’s not like a 50% pay cut or anything like that. But I do think there is an expectation that the equity is where the big upside is going to be. I think you do need to get sort of entrepreneurial people who are willing to place that bet, because the cash might be just a lateral move. Maybe it’s not a pay increase, but if everything works out, their equity is going to be worth a lot.

Do these cannabis companies care if these lawyers are cannabis users, or into the cannabis culture?

A: Yes and no. If somebody has a moral objection to cannabis, either recreationally or as a medicinal product, they’re probably not going to be a fit for a company that is selling cannabis products. I have not found that our clients were at all concerned about whether or not somebody personally uses cannabis. I think that being really enmeshed in the cannabis culture in the searches that I’ve worked on, in the client that I’ve worked with, would probably have been seen as a negative more than a positive. It was really about the experience and the skill set and the cultural fit, which was completely separate from being a fan of cannabis as a product.

G: We’ve certainly had candidates who said [they’ve] seen family members or friends who have benefited [from cannabis] because they’re going through chemo or some sort of medical issue. I think that that is maybe helpful, but it’s nothing that our clients are seeking out.

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