Having direct experience in the cannabis industry may help with getting a job in the legal department at an expanding cannabis company, but experts say it takes more than industry knowledge.
In March, Mike Evers, the founder of Evers Legal Search, was contracted to help Chicago-based Grassroots Cannabis find its first general counsel. Usually, Evers explained, he gets a middle-of-the-road response with attorneys wanting to learn more about the specific role. However, the lawyers he has approached for the position have either been excited at the prospect of helping expand the industry or showing they do not believe in cannabis legalization.
“People are self-identifying right away,” Evers explained.
A number of attorneys at firms are familiar with the changing cannabis laws, Evers said.
“The right person to run these new legal departments are going to be generalists with corporate backgrounds,” he said. “What I learned once I dove in is that they’re [Grassroots Cannabis] not looking for an industry expert.”
He explained that at the general counsel level the successful candidate will likely already be a general counsel of a publicly traded company or in the legal department working close to the general counsel.
Many of the legal departments for these expanding companies are small and may grow only depending on how the company grows.
Jean Gonnell, who was recently hired as the second general counsel for Strainwise Consulting in Colorado, said right now she is the company’s only in-house attorney. However, she does plan on hiring in the future.
“I’d prefer to keep it small for now,” Gonnell said of the size of her legal department. “It depends on when things change and Strainwise is expanding. The department needs to expand with the company.”
Matt Miller, the general counsel of Green Thumb Industries Inc. in Chicago, said there are two other in-house attorneys at the company and the legal department is hiring. He said he is not sure of the size of the legal department he wants to create.
“Given the complexities of what we do and our company’s continued growth, it is important that our legal team is staffed with the right number of lawyers and has the right mix of skills to always be one step ahead of everyone else,” Miller said in an email to Corporate Counsel.
Gonnell said she plans on hiring people with corporate experience, regardless of industry, though she is not likely to consider attorneys who have a criminal defense background.
“The transfer from criminal defense to civil administrative law is very difficult,” Gonnell explained.
Regulatory and business experience will be necessary for an in-house attorney at a cannabis company since the legal or illegal use of medical and/or recreational cannabis is governed on the municipal, state and federal levels. California, for example, allows medical and adult recreational use of cannabis, but some cities and counties have limited or banned dispensaries while a lawsuit against the state’s cannabis control department over deliveries was recently filed.
Miller said as far as recruiting for his own department he tries to keep an open mind by not excluding lawyers from consideration who practice in a particular industry. He did say, however, the stereotypical risk-averse attorneys may not be able to thrive in the cannabis industry.
“Regardless of the industry, if your background demonstrates that you can be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and that you thrive under pressure, then we should talk,” Miller said. “I suppose if your entire background shows a gravitation towards very hierarchical and structured work environments where it takes 10 meetings to make a decision and 14 committees to execute on that decision, that might be a problem, but other than that, I want to find the best people, period.”