BNA have interviewed Denver player Brian Vincente – here’s the lowdown. It’s interesting to note that he feels the Big Law firms will be standing on the sidelines for a while longer.
His professors and advisors told him it would be career suicide. But Brian Vicente would not be deterred: After graduating from University of Denver Sturm College of Law in 2004, he launched a practice in marijuana law.
Twelve years later, Vicente is considered a trailblazer.
Vicente Sederberg, self-described as the first national law firm dedicated exclusively to marijuana law, is thriving.
The firm has grown from two partners — Vicente and co-founder Christian Sederberg — to an office of 25 lawyers and 15 staff and will soon need to move into a bigger office.
Meanwhile, Vicente’s practice has evolved from defending individuals arrested for petty possession into a more mainstream practice that involves business law, contracts, banking, and tax regulations.
His largest accomplishment may be as co-author of the amendment that made Colorado the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana. Afterwards he became a sought-after advisor to local, state and national governments, even assisting Uruguay — the first country in the world to fully regulate the adult marijuana market. In 2014, the regional culture and business publication, 5280 Magazine, named his firm on a list of the “Most Powerful People in Denver.”
Today, 23 states allow some form of medical marijuana, while recreational sales and use are legal in four states plus Washington, D.C. (marijuana remains illegal under federal law).
Vicente spoke with Big Law Business about the present and future of marijuana law. Below is an edited transcript.
Big Law Business: Why practice marijuana law?
Vicente: For me this is an important topic largely from a social justice standpoint. The “war on drugs” and marijuana policy to me were damaging policies. I began doing advocacy work to change local and state laws. A lot of my work centered on defending medical marijuana patients, sick and dying patients and AIDS patients who were using medical marijuana.
After Colorado legalized medical marijuana, a lot of people started approaching me about how to navigate the laws so they could sell medical marijuana. In 2010, we got the first comprehensive law for regulating the medical marijuana business. At that point I recognized I needed to supplement my skill set as an advocate, because this was becoming a business law field. That is when I hooked up with my partner, Christian Sederberg, who came out of mid-sized business law firm in Denver, and we formed the firm in 2010.
Big Law Business: What does marijuana law entail?
Vicente: A good chunk of our work is policy, assisting campaigns to legalize marijuana, and representing state and local governments in terms of implementing and drafting recreational marijuana and medical marijuana rules. All we do is marijuana law; there’s no other firm like ours in the country. As such we are involved in campaigns in five states to legalize recreational marijuana use this November.
Big Law Business: Will large law firms soon be moving into marijuana law?
Vicente: A lot of firms are afraid to touch this because it’s still illegal federally. Because of that, you are going to be advising clients on state law, but in such a way they are breaking federal law. And how does that put your broader work at risk? Also, a lot of your bigger firms are run by gray-haired folks who don’t really understand this issue and how society is changing in a way that firms that trend younger tend to get.
Your bigger firms also have more diverse clients that might be prejudiced against marijuana and might be turned off by the fact the law firm they’ve been doing business with for 40 years in now dabbling in something that is federally illegal.
Larger firms are slow-moving beasts, and they’re hesitant to accept that the world is changing. They’ve got a business model that makes them rich now, and they are not necessarily interested in approaching a new issue that has some degree of risk.
Big Law Business: What will change that?
Vicente: What I find great about this area of law is this intersection of massive social change — 100 years of prohibition crumbling — and the opportunity for commerce. This is as much as a $50 billion annual industry, and we’re taking it out of the black market and into the regulated market. There’s absolutely an opportunity for commerce there, and the firms that are not risk-averse are taking a pretty hard look at it. A lot of firms are circling and getting very interested.
Big Law Business: Where do you see the practice of marijuana law in five years?
Vicente: It will be a very robust area of law, with more firms touching this space. I’m on the council of the University of Denver Law School, and the dean there told me one-third of the applications they receive list marijuana law as their stated interest. DU has a marijuana law program, and because of that they are receiving many more applications than other law schools, when law school applications are down.
This is something younger lawyers really see as legitimate, whereas older firms do not. But within five years they will proably realize this is an opportunity for an area of practice.
Big Law Business: Are you contacted about your practice by larger firms?
Vicente: We absolutely are. We are often brought in as special counsel for larger firms. Sometimes they will refer them in directly and step away, sometimes we’re brought in as the subject matter expert counsel on transactions.
Big Law Business: Will the practice change if more large firms get into it?
Vicente: People told me, if you legalize marijuana, you’re going to be out of a job. But the exact opposite was true. As it turned out, if you change marijuana law, then it really becomes about market development. People need to know how to navigate these laws, and there’s never an end to implementation.
What drove me into this is stopping people from being arrested for possessing marijuana. Now there is this opportunity to provide business law services to help people create what I believe is a better world, one where you can purchase marijuana in a store, and it’s taxed and people know what it is, and we’re not arresting people for possessing it.