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GPSolo Magazine

GPSolo March/April 2024: Niche Areas of Law Practice

Alcohol Beverage Law

John R Szymankiewicz


  • Alcohol law is a narrow specialty but involves a broad range of practice areas.
  • Clients in this niche need help with everything from business formation to financing, contracts, leases, federal and state licensing, advertising, and brand protection.
  • In alcohol law you can see your work have a very direct and meaningful impact on a business that produces a product that you can see on the shelf at your local bottleshop.
Alcohol Beverage Law
John Fedele via Getty Images

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In the legal world, there aren’t too many job titles sexier than “alcohol attorney.” But that glitz and glamour don’t carry you past your first Monday morning meeting with an alcohol client.

Hi. My name is John, and I’m an alcohol attorney. Am I in the right support group?

Just to be clear, my practice has nothing to do with DWI/DUI representation. I work with alcohol businesses. If you’re looking for information on DWI legal work, keep scrolling.

My practice has centered around alcohol producers and retailers for nearly 15 years now. For the last ten-plus years, more than 95 percent of my practice has been exclusively serving the craft beverage industry. I practice in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, and I also handle federal matters such as federal licensing and trademarks. Since declaring myself an alcohol attorney, I’ve represented more than 250 breweries, dozens of wineries, many distilleries, and a fair few tens of bars and restaurants. Far and away, most of my clients are small, independent businesses in which the owner may be the bartender, the producer, and the head janitor. These businesses operate in a narrow window between small margins and stress-inducing growth. It is exciting. It is never dull. But it is certainly not glamorous.

A Day in the Life of an Alcohol Attorney

Let me give you a rundown of my normal day.

8:30 am: Review calendar for the day: three new potential client calls, two meetings with existing clients, and a couple of hours to do some real, actual work.

9:00 am: Start answering emails from the last 12 hours (approximately 50 emails). Completely scuttle plan for the day in order to deal with a client emergency that has to be done today because sometimes clients are bad at planning.

10:00 am: Potential client phone call. Good person. Wants to open a brewery in the Triad area. We spend an hour talking through the process, the steps, and the options. I promise to send him a letter of engagement that day.

11:00 am: Start answering emails again.

11:05 am: Law partner comes in. We need to talk about our new office lease. He practices criminal defense (and, yes, he handles DWIs). But I get to review the lease as the only one in the office with contract/transactional experience. We argue about what one clause means. We ask another attorney in our office what the clause means. Three lawyers, no consensus.

11:30 am: Start answering emails again.

11:35 am: Existing client calls with a “quick question.” Asks a simple question with a complicated answer. We then talk about state alcohol beverage law for the next 45 minutes.

12:20 pm: Get a note from Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) that an application we had submitted was rejected because of a new, incredibly obscure, and bizarre “rule” that’s not written down anywhere and we’d never heard of before. Better start working to reformulate the application to make ABC happy.

12:30 pm: Call with an existing client to talk about strategy, requirements, and process for opening a second location for their brewery/taproom. Get notes on a couple of documents that need drafting in the next several days.

1:20 pm: Between calls, use the bathroom. Spend approximately five minutes talking with staff about why I haven’t had time to restock the office beer fridge.

1:30 pm: New potential client phone call. Total nutter. Wants to do something completely illegal in North Carolina. My side of the conversation: “No, it doesn’t matter if you’re using GPS. . . . Just so you know, saying the word ‘blockchain’ is not helpful in this discussion. . . . Yes, you’ve explained your idea three times, it’s still not allowed in North Carolina.” The phone call manages to suck 45 productive minutes out of my day. Did I mention we don’t charge for initial consultations?

2:15 pm: Go back to answering emails. In the last few hours, got another 20 emails, two of which are asking why I hadn’t responded to their email earlier today.

2:30 pm: Call with existing client about their corporate structure and how the federal and state alcohol regulatory authorities treat certain situations. Talk about financing options and why private debt or equity is a security. Get notes on three different questions I may need to research about advertising/sponsorship, health code requirements for a coffee machine, and whether or not I know anyone looking to sell used brewery equipment (cheap, of course).

3:30 pm: Call with potential client in another part of the country who wants to open a distillery. “Yes,” I say, “I can help you with some things. But for some things, you’ll likely need a local attorney.” Spend approximately 45 minutes talking about federal permitting, trademark, and special considerations as an alcohol producer. Ultimately, the client says, “Thanks for your time, John. Can you recommend an attorney in my state? I think I’d rather just use someone close by.” Perfect . . . now I have to go find a referral for that guy!

4:30 pm: Start answering emails again. Existing client calls with a “quick question.” Amazingly, it actually is a quick question—it takes only 15 minutes. Go back to answering emails. Associate asks if I’ve reviewed the two operating agreements, three trademark opinion letters, and the purchase agreement that were on my desk this morning. “Uh . . . not . . . yet?”

4:50 pm: Start reviewing docs for tomorrow as most of the staff heads out the door at 5:00 pm.

6:00 pm: Worked on almost nothing that I had planned to do today. Look in the office beer fridge and remember the reasons I mentioned earlier for why I haven’t restocked it. Leave for the day with more unanswered emails than I started with. . . .

Well, something like that, anyway.

Yes, I Still Love My Job

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I talk to people who are passionate about their craft and, generally, are really smart and good people. Alcohol law is a narrow specialty, but it covers many different areas. I describe our practice as “outside in-house counsel.” We help companies with everything from formation, financing, contracts, leases, federal and state licensing, regulatory compliance, employee management, advertising, trademark and brand protection, and—especially the last several years—buying/selling an alcohol business. It’s a generalist role where you need to know a little bit about a lot of areas of law with an eye on the impact of alcohol regulation (which can be federal, state, or even municipal).

Why Would Someone Want to Get into This Area of Law?

It’s fun! You get to see your work have a very direct and meaningful impact on a business that produces a product that you can see on the shelf at your local bottleshop. You can see the trademark you helped with on a can of product and still meet the brand owners later in the week for a beer at their taproom.

It’s exciting! The law is constantly changing, and sometimes, the only way to know the right way to do something is through experience. So, it’s a constant challenge to do and say the right thing at the right time, and what was good compliance advice last year may be totally different now.

It’s lucrative! No, that’s not true. Completely making it up on that one. As any attorney for small, independent businesses can attest, it’s often a question of what the company can afford rather than what it needs. I give away a lot of my time as “free” legal advice, whether it’s a consultation or just not charging clients when they need help and I know they’re on the ropes. But it does pay the rent. And I get a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction with what I do. I feel like I’m more a member of the community of craft beverage rather than just one of their vendors.

How Do You Get Started in Alcohol Beverage Law?

If, despite my best efforts, you still think you’d want to become an alcohol attorney, you may be asking yourself, “How do I get into that area of law?” Well, for me, it was a passion before I was a lawyer. I’m a second-career lawyer and wanted to work in an industry that I really loved (and where an adult beverage could be considered a tax-deductible business expense). Getting into representing alcohol business clients comes down to two main issues: (1) do you have the requisite knowledge or experience, and (2) can you get these businesses to hire you?

As far as the knowledge, well, if you graduated law school and passed the bar, you’re capable of practicing alcohol law. But there are no classes out there to teach you how to do it. There are darn few CLEs available that even talk about alcohol law. As a result, learning the ropes involves a lot of self-education and some trial and error. One way I started out was by finding an interesting question in the news and then working to find out what the right answer was in my state. Then, I’d write about it in a blog or other post online. That generated more conversation, which could sometimes move things in different directions. Explaining the law to someone is a great way to learn it yourself. Also, in general, experienced practitioners are happy to share their experience or knowledge. The universe of lawyers dedicating their practices solely to alcohol law is pretty small—I’m guessing that there are probably less than 50 to 75 of us in the United States in total. And fortunately, we mostly all know each other and refer business to each other when it makes sense—after all, alcohol laws vary greatly from state to state. So, it’s helpful to cultivate contacts in other states for insight and to talk through issues.

Getting people to hire you is a different question. As in any area of the law, clients want to hire someone with experience in the kind of issue they have. That can be very difficult when you’re trying to get that very experience. But I have found that small, independent alcohol clients care more about you than about your experience or your billing rate. What worked for me was proving that I really am dedicated to their industry. I went to their conferences, I went to their events, I went to their taprooms, I sponsored as much as I could whenever I could and supported them and the industry wherever possible. Sheer stubbornness worked out pretty well for me—the same people kept seeing me over and over again, so they figured I must be good for something! And I think writing helps a lot as well. We live in a digital, search-engine age, and people are likely to Google something before they think about calling a lawyer. So, I wrote a lot and posted a lot online; eventually, when someone Googled the right thing, mine was one of the only listed websites that dealt with what they cared about. My experience may not work for everyone, but it has worked for me.

Also, I’ll say that being a dedicated alcohol attorney may not be for everyone. And more and more attorneys are seeing alcohol as a part of their practice rather than their sole occupation. And that’s fine. There are plenty of opportunities out there for everyone. You don’t need to be an expert to make a difference and help a small business.

A nice cold beverage that was made by one of your clients at the end of a long day is pretty nice, too.