Meet Washington's Marijuana Industry Attorney of the Year

<b class="credit">Photo Credit: Jeffrey Luke</b>
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Luke

Hilary Bricken, who leads the Canna Law Group practice at Seattle's Harris Moure, PLLC, has had a very good year. She was just named 2013 Top Deal Maker by the Puget Sound Business Journal and Marijuana Industry Attorney of the Year at the inaugural DOPE Industry Awards.

We recently sat down with Hilary to ask her what it is like to be the Washington State Cannabis Industry's leading legal lady.

Q: How does it feel to win the DOPE Industry award for Marijuana Attorney of the Year? Could you ever have imagined being the recipient of such an award when you graduated law school?

A: It's an honor to be recognized by the industry itself and I hope to win it again next year. I went to law school in the State of Florida (University of Miami School of Law) and something as progressive as marijuana legalization wasn't even on my radar.

Q: How did you come to get involved in the cannabis industry?

A: We had a criminal attorney approach us with several medical marijuana clients who needed business (not criminal advice) and it snowballed from there into a regular business practice.

Q. Do your parents know what you are doing? Do they approve?

A. My parents indeed know what I do. And, despite being Republican Floridians, they've very proud of my endeavors thus far and hope to see legal marijuana make its way to the Sunshine State.

Q: There are not (yet) any specialized law degree programs being offered. What kind of experience or training does one need to practice Canna Law?

A: A lawyer definitely needs business law experience. You need to know how to draft, amend, and edit a commercial lease, for example, in addition to trademark registration, corporate formation, and contract drafting. If you want to litigate, you also need experience with municipal and State appeals and the pressure of those deadlines and client management in that context.

Q: Is there a lot of demand for legal services in the cannabis industry? What types of services do you and your peers provide?

A: Currently, the answer is yes. We provide business advice and litigation services, administrative appeal services, lobbying, corporate formation, landlord/tenant advice and litigation services, recreational licensing services, recreational licensing appeals, intellectual property services and policing, and land use and zoning legal services.

Q: Washington State has just completed the license application process for would-be growers, processors and retailers. Now that the application process is complete, what types of services will you be offering to the cannabis industry?

A: We're probably looking at getting into more litigation services as appeals against the Board develop and more landlords fight with licensee clients. We'll be doing much more contract drafting between auxiliary businesses and licensees and between licensees themselves. Additionally, our trademark services have really picked up as well as our development of client intellectual property portfolio creation and protection. We'll also be looking to represent those clients who want to experiment with marijuana tourism and activities.

Q: Is cannabis law a growing field?

A. It's definitely a growing field. The more States come on line and as legalization sweeps the nation, there's a huge need for competent legal counsel.

Q: Is your firm hiring?

A: Unfortunately, not right now. We've just taken on a fourth new attorney to assist with the practice and that looks to be enough for now.

Q: Where do you recruit and what do you look for in a candidate?

A: When we are looking for Canna Law lawyers, we're looking for self-starters. The industry is a complicated place and the law is no easier; you've got to be able to hold your own and have confidence in your work. We're also looking for good team players. The one thing we've learned about marijuana law, you don't go it alone.

Q: With Alaska, Oregon, California, New York, Florida and a number of other states now considering full legalization, does that create more of an opportunity for yourself and Canna Law Group?

A: It certainly does. In the Canna Law Group, we have lawyers who assist us who are licensed in all of those States. As other States legalize and pass MMJ laws, we hope to be on the ground floor to help clients develop their businesses and remain in compliance with State and local laws across the nation.

Q: Are there special challenges practicing law in the cannabis industry? Can you describe?

A: Most definitely. The elephant in the room (for everyone, not just us) is the Federal government. The Federal prohibition precludes industry players gaining access to banking and forces them to suffer an inequitable tax structure from the IRS. While States are becoming wiser to legalization, pushing for sterner regulation, without the tools of fair banking and taxation, these business will not be able to be as efficient as they could otherwise be. And that affects revenue (which the States seem to want very badly) and it affects public policy and perception of the industry in a negative way. So, while legalization on the State level is a baby step in the right direction, without some more give from the Feds, it may be a moot point. And that's what makes practicing law in this area a challenge-it's not a sure thing for anyone.

Q: Are there special challenges being a woman in the cannabis industry?

A. I've gotten this question a few times and my answer is that it depends. As an attorney, I don't feel like I'm trying to break through a marijuana glass ceiling. Nine times out of ten, I get respect from clients, my peers, and industry players in general. Nonetheless, in the marketplace itself, I have noticed a lack of female presence and influence on the whole, which is ultimately to the detriment of the industry. I think those challenges stem from the nature of the industry and its black market transition; women tend to be very thoughtful and sometimes risk averse and I think that's why more women haven't yet jumped into the business of marijuana. But I think State legalization does help to stabilize the market and make it somewhat more predictable, which is (maybe) what women are looking for.