Bloomberg Law: From Wachtell to Big Weed, Dutchie’s Top Lawyer Starts New Path
Bloomberg Law – June 21, 2021
By Brian Baxter
- Lauren Thomas left fintech, Big Law behind for cannabis role
- Pleasantrees among firms adding legal diversity to weed world
Dutchie LLC, a provider of delivery technology to cannabis dispensaries backed by some big names, has hired former Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz corporate associate Lauren Thomas as its first general counsel.
Thomas, whose hire has not previously been reported, officially started at Dutchie on March 15. The Bend, Ore.-based company announced a day later its $1.7 billion valuation following a $200 million Series C fundraising round and acquisitions of point-of-sale cannabis outfits Greenbits Inc. and Leaf Logix Technologies Inc.
“It dawned on me that I was going to be general counsel of three companies and help them integrate,” said Thomas, who joined Dutchie after spending more than a year as a San Francisco-based general counsel and chief compliance officer for financial technology and digital banking startup Good Money Group Inc.
Dutchie, founded in 2017 by brothers Ross and Zach Lipson, provides the back-end technology platform that allows cannabis dispensaries to streamline their operations and deliver products to their customers.
The company’s backers include former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, basketball star Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures, Tiger Global Management LLC, and Casa Verde Capital LLC, a cannabis investment firm co-founded by rapper-turned-entrepreneur Snoop Dogg.
“You’re not really a legit cannabis company unless Snoop is investing,” Thomas joked. Those deep pockets, however, convinced her to make the switch from fintech to cannabis retail technology, a transition that’s been smoother than the former Wachtell lawyer expected.
Just as fintech has shook up the established banking and financial industry, Dutchie and cannabis are changing ecommerce, she said. “Working for innovative companies in highly regulated areas is my sweet spot,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for me as an attorney to be answering interesting questions.”
Thomas was part of a team that helped take public mobile payments startup Square Inc., which hired her in 2016 to handle securities and corporate governance work from its San Francisco headquarters. At Square, Thomas found herself working on cryptocurrencies, then still a relatively niche financial services product that had yet to receive regulatory guidance on whether it was a “security, commodity, or a currency,” she said. “I love being at the tip of the spear on those types of legal issues.”
Thomas, who got married in May but has put her honeymoon on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, saw a similar opportunity at Dutchie. She said she was referred for the company’s top legal job by former colleagues at Square.
Thomas becomes one of the few women of color to become law department leaders in corporate America, let alone the legal weed industry. Being the sole person with a diverse background in the boardroom is a familiar experience for Thomas. “It’s not just in the cannabis space, it’s also in technology, Big Law, and M&A in general,” she said. “A little bit of me is accustomed to being the first and only Black and Latina person in the room. But of course, representation matters, and it’s an honor for me to be an advocate and in a position where I can inspire and let other women and people of color know that there’s space for us in the C-suite.”
Embracing diversity and inclusivity is of particular importance in the cannabis industry because of the “war on drugs’ disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Thomas said. “Now that cannabis is legalizing, I think it’s of extra importance that people of color are in leadership positions.”
Black and diverse in-house leaders at cannabis-focused companies like Dutchie have the power to not only help shape the industry’s future but also eliminate many of the injustices wrought upon minority communities, Thomas said. Dutchie isn’t alone in that effort.
Cresco Labs Inc., a publicly traded cannabis company that has built out its own legal team, announced June 17 a summer-long social justice campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the war on drugs. Pleasantrees Cannabis Co., a Michigan-based cannabis dispensary that has expanded to other states like Massachusetts, last month hired Dickinson Wright associate Myles Baker in Detroit as a director of legal and regulatory compliance.
“Historically, and to this day, Black men are targeted and continue to suffer the injustices connected to cannabis and the war on drugs,” Baker said in a statement. “I hope to continue to break down barriers for minorities in the cannabis space and help serve the communities we choose to inhabit.”
Baker was outside counsel to Pleasantrees at Dickinson Wright, a firm that saw former partner Benjamin Sobczak join the company last year as its chief legal officer. Earlier this year, Pleasantrees hired former Dickinson Wright associate Jerome Crawford to be its director of legal operations and social equity. Bloomberg News reported in January that a new regulatory regime in Washington more receptive to social justice issues might also be a boon to companies seeking to reap the benefits from the widespread U.S. legalization of marijuana.
Thomas will remain based in the Bay Area but expects to frequently work out of Bend, a small city that’s boomed during the pandemic and remains home to the world’s last Blockbuster video retail store. Dutchie’s switch to a remote workforce within the last year has allowed the company to recruit talent from across the country, Thomas said.
That flexibility is something she hopes to take advantage of in hiring for her legal group. The company currently has job openings for a product counsel and director of government relations and public policy.
Thomas is also looking for a paralegal and a compliance manager as Dutchie creates a centralized compliance team consolidated from its newly acquired business units. Thomas said she’s been pleasantly surprised to see that large law firms are keen on advising expanding cannabis-focused companies like Dutchie.
Goodwin Procter is Dutchie’s go-to firm for general corporate matters, said Thomas, noting that the firm handled its most recent fundraising and acquisitions of Greenbits and Leaf Logix. Perkins Coie has done regulatory work for Dutchie and San Francisco’s Vierra Magen Marcus has handled intellectual property matter, Thomas said.
She’s also in touch with her former co-workers at Wachtell in New York. “They’re incredibly supportive of my switch into cannabis, so I have a feeling we’ll be working together again in the future,” Thomas said. “They don’t do routine work, but when the exciting work happens, I’ll be reaching out, I’m sure. There are a lot of opportunities in the cannabis space because the market is so fragmented right now.”