Eight states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, while an additional 29 states and the District of Columbia permit medical use. The legal cannabis market reached an estimated $7.2 billion in 2016, and is on track to create more than 250,000 new jobs by 2020. The stigma associated with marijuana use is also fading, as a 2017 poll found that 61% of Americans believe marijuana use should be legalized. In other words, cannabis is a booming business – and the legal services industry is taking notice.
The nascent cannabis law sector is evolving rapidly as more states adopt laws allowing marijuana’s medical or recreational use. Self-professed “cannabis lawyers,” usually small boutique firms or solo practices, have existed for years, and much of their success and longevity has depended on bold marketing. Midsize to large corporate law firms with deep bench strength across a broad spectrum of practices and industries have traditionally either (a) shied away from developing a cannabis practice, or (b) operated limited practices “under the radar” without aggressively marketing them.
Much of this reluctance to go “all in” is due to the perceived stigma associated with the cannabis industry, particularly because marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. This federal prohibition gives many law firms pause, as it presents ethical considerations for the attorneys and also poses business obstacles to cannabis-industry entrepreneurs. From banking to real estate to trademark protection, the cannabis industry remains at a considerable disadvantage due to the patchwork of state and federal laws that often come into direct conflict.
Nonetheless, the cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and with this substantial investment comes the need for legal counsel in numerous areas – regulatory, tax, real estate, M&A, immigration, intellectual property, employment and the list goes on. The time is now for corporate law firms to develop sound business development and marketing strategies targeting cannabis entrepreneurs.
There is no one-size-fits-all branding and messaging strategy for firms interested in promoting their services to cannabis industry clients. Some firms aggressively promote their “cannabis practice” on their firm websites, complete with stock images of marijuana plants and links to firm-branded cannabis blogs (many of which incorporate cringeworthy marijuana puns). Other firms choose not to highlight their work with cannabis businesses and instead bury mention of this experience in individual attorney bios. Still other firms fold their cannabis practice into a broader “regulated industries” practice, which often encompasses such industries as alcohol, tobacco, firearms and healthcare.
As the stigma of marijuana steadily erodes and the cannabis industry continues to boom, corporate law firms nationwide will wrestle with how to market their services to “ganjapreneurs” while maintaining the integrity and sophistication of their brands. A carefully planned internal and external communications strategy may prove the difference between a thriving cannabis practice and one that goes up in smoke.