After she finds out a potential client’s true intentions regarding the cannabis sector — and after she explains cannabis is a long game and not for the timid — Jessica Gonzalez hits them with what she feels is the best legal advice she can offer:
“My favorite thing to tell my clients is you need to learn how to pivot, or die,” she said.
Gonzalez, who serves in a leadership position with two national cannabis associations, announced last week she that she has left her own boutique firm and joined Bressler Amery & Ross in Florham Park.
Gonzalez will co-chair the firm’s Cannibas Practice along with Nikolas Komyati. More importantly, she said she will continue to make helping women and members of underserved populations a top priority.
“The corporate hierarchy is very different than working for yourself, but I knew I had to also look out for the best interest of my clients — and the best interest for my clients was to be with a firm like Bressler, which has multiple offices in multiple states,” she said. “These attorneys will provide me the resources for me to continue to go out there and grow the practice.”
Gonzalez said those entering the sector need legal advice because the industry is so young — and so quickly changing.
“If you want to start a business in any other industry, there’s precedent,” she said. “But there’s no precedent for cannabis and, therefore, you really need to have proper guidance. You cannot do it yourself. You cannot DIY a cannabis application.”
Gonzalez acknowledges she is grateful that Bressler, which has approximately 175 attorneys nationwide, has given her an opportunity at such a young age.
“For any firm of this size to offer a 28-year-old Latina attorney the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and a lawyer and help co-manage a practice group is incredible,” she said. “That spoke volumes to me.”
Gonzalez talked with ROI-NJ about her role at Bressler, as well as her roles at Minorities for Medical Marijuana (where she serves as outside general counsel) and the Minority Cannabis Business Association (where she is on the advisory panel).
The interview was edited for clarity.
ROI-NJ: Let’s talk about your commitment to women and minorities in this space, as it’s one area where you have been a champion.
Jessica Gonzalez: I had my own firm (Moyeno Gonzalez and Associates P.C.) for about a year. It was focused directly on the cannabis, hemp and CBD space. We were Latina-owned. And, really, our whole purpose in forming was to lower the barriers of entry for minority- and women-owned companies. Obviously, legal services are a huge barrier to specific demographics, for the simple fact it’s expensive. And everything in cannabis is much more expensive.
We started this venture to be able to provide legal services to minority- and women-owned companies, and I am very proud to say that, by the end of the year, we had 29 clients and 90% of them were either women- or minority-owned companies.
ROI: How did it all work?
JG: We provided discounted services. So, if you were a group that was committed to promoting social equity, whether that be events or hiring folks from underserved communities, we provided a discount for your first year of engagement. We also provided flat-fee rates. A lot of folks are really comfortable with that, because they knew upfront what they were getting, whether we were working on LLC formation, a trademark or certain corporate documents. We also provided payment plans if you were not able to afford everything upfront. We always were very flexible with our clients. We wanted them to have some skin in the game, but they need a lawyer to be able to get to that point.
ROI: Now that you’ve joined Bressler, this all changes — both the amount of service you can provide and the cost, correct? Why did you make the move?
JG: I’ve been talking with talking to Nik, the co-chair, for quite some time, really. I really liked what Bressler was doing in this space. I had a couple of other law firms also reach out to me, but I wanted to choose a law firm that both would allow me to continue with my entrepreneurial spirit and allow me to continue to grow in the cannabis space. A lot of law firms do have this cannabis practice group, but some of them either like to keep it hush-hush, or they’re only involved up until a certain point. Bressler was very reassuring of the fact that they really want me to go forward and that they would provide me with the resources and the platform that I really needed to do more of the work that I wanted to do. That’s why I decided to join the firm.
There are going to be some differences. But, thankfully, the firm has allowed me to keep the rates that I have with my current clients. Obviously, any new clients will come in at the firm’s rate. But, for my existing clients, it was important that I maintained consistency with them. That was the expectation that I provided them from the beginning that, for a whole entire year of engagement, they will have this rate for me. They will have these flat fees applicable to them.
ROI: It seems everyone wants to get into this space. And there are many barriers to entry. Talk about the challenges that come with being a woman or a member of underserved community. When they reach out to you, how does the conversation go?
JG: The first thing I do is find out why they’re getting involved. And then I’m very transparent with them about really what it’s going to take. Cannabis is not a short game. It is a long game. And the folks who are going to survive and really thrive are the ones that can be proactive and not reactive to what’s happening. And that’s why having adequate legal counsel is so important, because you need forward-thinking attorneys, attorneys who are focused on cannabis specifically. We’re apprised of updates and what’s happening, and we can learn from other states.
ROI: You previously were based in Hoboken in Hudson County. Now, you’re in Florham Park and Morris County, which aren’t exactly known for diversity. How are you going to keep your ties to underserved communities?
JG: I do a lot of speaking engagements. Pretty much anybody who asked me to go speak somewhere, I do, whether it’s going to be a 10-person crowd or a 100-person crowd. Providing that kind of free education and offering my experience is the best way to attract clients.
ROI: Talk about your work with Minorities for Medical Marijuana and the Minority Cannabis Business Association — and how that will help grow your business?
JG: I was the national director of Latinx outreach for Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and then got promoted to general counsel for Minorities for Medical Marijuana. They are based out of Florida and have 25 chapters in the United States. They do a lot of great work and providing minorities with the resources that may not otherwise be available to them.
In New Jersey, they did the New Jersey cannabis licensing bootcamp at Seton Hall Law for two days. I was an instructor there and I lectured on cannabis contracts and intellectual property. The whole purpose of that was to really give new players insight into what it’s actually like to put together an application, the kind of resources that you need, the team that you need to build and the contracts that you need. A lot of folks don’t have this knowhow. And the criminalization of the plant really put a lot of folks in a very bad situation. Minorities for Medical Marijuana has taken it upon themselves to provide those resources in order to give those an opportunity to get into this space who may not otherwise have been able to.
ROI: How does that role change as general counsel?
JG: I’m now making sure they’re compliant, helping out with their trademark, their branding, making sure that, really, everything is up to par, just because they’re getting so big.
ROI: In December, you were appointed to the policy committee for the Minority Cannabis Business Association. What does that entail?
JG: We’re working on structuring federal policy to include social equity provisions. They have been successful the past couple of years in presenting a template for state legislators to use. A lot of times, you can talk to politicians and legislators, but they want to see something in front of them. So, they provided them with an outline of what a social equity program would look like. So, now we’re at the federal level. That’s what I’m helping out on, providing comments and revisions to certain bills to include more social equity provisions as well.
ROI: Last question: Your background includes an undergraduate degree from Boston University and a J.D. from Suffolk University Law School, but you’re still proud of your roots. Talk about that.
JG: Absolutely. I’m from Jersey City Heights and a graduate of McNair (High School). And proud of it.