Finding attorneys with an appetite for risk has become one of the leading challenges for recruiting in-house attorneys to the cannabis industry, according to two in-house counsel recruiters at Major, Lindsey & Africa.
Gigi Birchfield, managing partner in the in-house group in the Los Angeles office, said because many lawyers are risk-averse, it can be difficult pulling them away from high-paying jobs in settled industries.
“Finding that person in a pool of qualified people who are willing and able to leave the security of what is probably a pretty good job is difficult,” Birchfield said. “They’re leaving something that is pretty certain and pretty highly paid.”
For some of the newer cannabis companies, the compensation may not be what some in-house attorneys are used to. Ashley McCall, a director in the in-house group also in Los Angeles, said many attorneys who would be entering the cannabis industry are already highly paid.
“[Cannabis companies] are still in the very early stages and the compensation ranges may be below market. It has to be someone that has enough faith in the company to take an equity share,” McCall said.
The in-house lawyers likely to take the risks, Birchfield and McCall said, are those in highly regulated industries. They said their clients in the cannabis space are looking for lawyers heavily involved in regulatory issues.
“Our client was particularly interested in highly regulated industries like food or pharmaceuticals,” Birchfield said. “A lot of those people [in those industries] are already doing dives into cannabis. Those folks tend to be a little bit more open to the prospect of working in the [cannabis] industry.”
There are a few signs recruiters look for when determining risk before presenting a candidate to a cannabis company.
“At least on paper it’s interesting to see if they’ve made a move from Big Law to in-house or from big pharma to a startup. Until we get them on the phone it’s hard to assess how they react to cannabis specifically,” McCall said.
Generally speaking, McCall said cannabis companies are not looking for “someone who is overly enthusiastic” about cannabis itself, since that “would have turned off one of our clients.”
“They want someone who can look at the industry and see the industry is going to blow up,” Birchfield said. “Our clients do want candidates who are passionate about their company as opposed to the industry at large.”
Many cannabis companies in the past year have made efforts to hire general counsel and are now looking to fill out their legal departments.
Birchfield and McCall said companies are looking to fill their in-house legal teams with attorneys who have experience in handling regulation, commercial and mergers and acquisitions, and intellectual property.