Recent reports predict that the global legal marijuana market will grow to 66.3 billion USD by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 25%. The cannabis industry is on the cusp of a revolution, and as the industry grows, so too will its appetite for seasoned and ambitious legal professionals.
Lawyers entering cannabis companies now are primed to play major roles in an industry still in its infancy. In-house cannabis lawyers operate at a very sophisticated level, interacting regularly with senior level management, developing new skills and taking on new responsibilities, and building up their own teams. Given the nature of emerging companies, in-house lawyers are in front of senior management and the board early and often. By coming in at the ground floor, lawyers have the opportunity to not only make meaningful contributions to the company they work for, but also to the industry as a whole.
While this landscape is ripe for lawyers who are open to it, budding cannabis companies aren’t willing to bet on just anyone. These emerging companies take their own businesses very seriously. They seek highly pedigreed lawyers—think top law school and Big Law credentials—who have a demonstrated ability to operate at the highest levels.
So how should you market yourself to have the best shot at the job?
Being up-to-speed on cannabis regulation isn’t a prerequisite, but regulatory experience is a plus. Cannabis, like any emerging industry, demands constant and careful risk analysis due to the complex and evolving regulatory landscape. Candidates should be flexible and able to thrive under pressure, think creatively, pivot on the drop of a dime, and take on novel issues, such as dealing with ever-evolving and disparate state and federal laws and their impact on business expansion and doing business across state lines. Some of the most successful candidates are people who have experience in multiple highly regulated industries.
Focus on your experience as a polished, strategic adviser rather than your enthusiasm for the product. Contrary to expectations, cannabis companies are not looking for a product ambassador in their attorney. Treat the industry with the same degree of professionalism and seriousness as you would any other. While an appreciation of legal cannabis is not discouraged, there’s no need to play it up or even mention it. Instead, emphasize your chops under pressure, your ability to learn quickly and your stellar background.
Don’t shy away from the risk, but understand what the real risks are. While there are real risks associated with entering the cannabis industry, being seen as “the weed attorney” as a result of your experience isn’t one of them. This exact—and flawed—reason is why many otherwise qualified candidates cross cannabis companies off their prospective list of in-house options.
A cannabis company will not stain your otherwise flawless resume. Instead, it will enhance it, so long as you do careful due diligence for the specific company, as you would in any other industry. With the constantly shifting regulatory landscape and resulting volatility in the marketplace, take a careful look to see if the company you’re considering can weather the storm and emerge as a market leader. Make sure the team is well-situated as a start-up, that there are good growth prospects, and that the company is aiming to build a strong legal team whose members you would value as peers.
Of course, the other risks associated with start-ups—volatility and uncertainty in the industry, a shifting regulatory landscape—remain the same. But as more states legalize marijuana medically and recreationally, and the entire business ecosystem around the industry develops, more big clients (and accordingly, top-tier firms) will start to move into the space. Attorneys already entrenched in the industry will be best-positioned to capitalize on its enormous growth.
Going in-house in the cannabis industry isn’t for everyone. It takes a highly pedigreed and experienced attorney with a high appetite for risk, a broad skill-set and a polished executive presence. But with risk comes great reward.