How a Lawyer's Love of Beer Led to a Successful Career
On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Marc Sorini, General Counsel for the Brewers Association and principal of AlcoStar consulting. Marc discusses his journey as a lawyer, beer lover, and home brewer and how marrying your vocation with a calling is the key to a successful professional career. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
Interview with Marc Sorini
On Why He Decided to Pursue Law
Enjoyed Putting Together Complex Problems That Couldn’t Be Solved With Mathematical Precision
I was a history major, so I always liked the intellectual challenge of putting together complex problems, but where you couldn't make a call with mathematical precision. Like you can in engineering, let's say. There's a lot of probabilities and guesswork.
I always found that fascinating. And so I thought that was a skill that would suit me well as a lawyer and I was right. Now that I think back, I probably should have done more due diligence by asking people if they could introduce me to lawyers. I didn't do much of that.
Went to law school, and do not have a family history of lawyers. And in fact, I was probably one of the few people at law school who learned the words "plaintiff" in first year law school. And what is a plaintiff?
On Finding His Love of Beer
College, Geography, and a Great Book Recommendation
It was definitely in the late eighties. And I remember Sam Adams being one of the first beers where I thought to myself, my goodness. I was like any other college student. I was a college student in the eighties. I think our big brand was Stroh because I was at Lehigh and at the time the Lehigh Valley Brewery, which is now owned by Sam Adams, was owned by Stroh. So that was like the beer you could get cheap. But that was an eye-opener.
Then when I graduated in 1988, I moved to Boston and there was a beer there called Harpoon. And it was like, wow. I thought beer was this and beer is this. So that was very eye-opening to me.
And then when I was clerking, one of the clerks at the Chief Judge's Chambers, was really into good beer and he gave me a book by an author named Michael Jackson, World Guide to Beer. Michael Jackson, not the same guy with the glove. And that was it, man. It opened my eyes to, wow. Beer is so rich and it's been a hobby ever since.
On Connecting His Love of Beer with the Practice of Law
Writing on Legal Issues for Local Papers, Asking to be Part of Firm Alcohol Practice Groups
I guess I was a 2L, because my 1L year I clerked on the 11th circuit. And it was at that point that I got bit by the love of, what they at the time called, microbreweries, which is an archaic term. Now we call them craft breweries.
I was a 2L at a large law firm. I was doing general litigation. So coming out of law school, I took a job at a big firm that I had summered with and it just occurred to me that I was not going to be happy doing this for decades if I didn't have a special interest in the clients that I was doing it with. And popped in my head, I wonder if I can be a beer lawyer?
I quickly started calling the local brews paper. I called the editor and said, Hey , are there legal issues? And he said, my goodness, of course there are. So I said let me ask around and find out what some of those issues are and I'll start to write about them.
Shortly thereafter, I had an opportunity to switch firms and during that interview process, I said do you do any alcohol work? And they said, oh yeah, we do. And so two of the partners I was working under right away, put out a call to their other partners that said, Hey, there's a mid-level associate here who really loves alcohol law would love to learn more if you have projects, send them his way. So all of that started the momentum moving.
Lo and behold, I then got the attention of a gentleman named T. Raymond Williams, who's sadly passed on. He was at McDermott. And we were introduced by way of Jim Koch of Sam Adams and he recruited me to McDermott in 1999. And that really turned into a 21 year great relationship with that firm.
Really, I felt like I had been there, done that on everything in law firm partnership by the time it was done, it was a great run. But for the last 10 years of my career, I thought it would be terrific to focus back on nothing but craft breweries and pivot from a lot of bread and butter, legal issues to a more policy oriented government affairs role. So in a nutshell, that's the journey.
On the First Legal Issues He Encountered as a “Beer Lawyer”
Franchise Law and Litigating Government Agency
One of the very first ones I remember was for ironically Harpoon who were a client of the firm and there was an issue that I still wrestle with called franchise law. There was a new franchise law that had just passed in New York and they wanted to know how it impacted their relationship with their distributor. And here we are, 25 years later. I know the ownership and founder of Harpoon. The distributor’s general counsel is a personal friend of mine.
But I did that analysis and we did what we needed to do. And that was really rewarding because it was a small client. So the partner said, Hey, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this and I don't know much about this franchise law stuff. But it was a new law in New York. You learn it. And I led the project and that was real exciting.
The other big project I had there was a big litigation for a partner who's actually still there in intellectual property, Peter Brody. He had a case litigating, against what was then the ATF, over the labeling of some wine. And so it really got me to sink my teeth into a case. Eventually the ALJ dismissed all charges against our client which was terrific. But you don't litigate with the government agency, at least in our business, very often. So that gave me some unique insights that kept with me for 20 years. So that was a really terrific case to be on.
On Expanding His Alcohol Practice in BigLaw
Recruited, Taught, and Mentored by T. Raymond Williams; Ultimately Took Over His Practice
Then, T. Raymond Williams - who was a great old Southern gentleman - he, in all the right ways, recruited me and it was hard because I was very happy at Ropes and Gray but he was the Dean of Alcohol Practice in Washington, DC. And one of the top guys in the country, he really did nothing but alcohol law. It took them about a year to talk me into it, but eventually he persuaded me to move over to McDermott.
And I worked for six years under him and then took over his practice and built it out further. It was terrific. Raymond was very conscious about being a good mentor and a good teacher.
On What Makes a Good Teacher
Leading by Example and Investing in Being a Mentor
I think there's probably two things. One, which you're probably going to hear me say at least once more, is lead by example. I've always felt that striving for excellence, keeping it practical, making sure everything is done ethically, keeping things civil, even when you were in a litigation against somebody, are all important things. So leading by example is very important.
And then the second thing is investment. You have to invest in it. And to be honest, I don't think I had as much of an opportunity to do that in law firm practices. I think one of the unfortunate things about law firm practice particularly today is the clients don't want to pay for associates' learning. And the firms can't afford to write off massive amounts of time for learning.
And that's a tension. And I understand it. I think that's a universal tension in the law firms. But now that I'm hiring some people at The Brewers Association, it's really gratifying for me to say, I'm going to spend at least an hour a day on the phone with this person just telling them stories and just educating people and taking the time. So I think it's a combination of example and investment in my view.
On Being In-House Versus at a Law Firm
Get a More Holistic Understanding and More Insight into the Client
I am relatively new to the in-house part of the Brewers Association. They were founded by a merger in 2005. I've been outside counsel to them since then, and to one of the predecessor organizations since 1998.
But being in-house is very different. I think that by spending that time, you create the rich understanding that both helps in the way you work together and also helps on the substantive side of really understanding a problem, not as a check the box, but really holistically getting it. And then having better insight to do whatever you're doing about it. Whether it's informing membership about a new legal development or trying to educate a member of Congress or a state legislator on a particular issue.
On Why He Moved from BigLaw Partner to GC at Brewers Association
Wants to Work on Policy Issues that Can Benefit Craft Producers and Brewers
I was at the point where I could have stayed at McDermott and I was very happy there. And they are still my primary outside go-to law firm. This is definitely not a knock on McDermott, but it was something where I was at a point in my career where I felt like I had done what I needed to do there.
And so then I started thinking what the crowning achievement looks like? And the crowning achievement in my mind was trying to make a dent on some of the policy issues that I'd been working within for 25 years and seeing if I could perhaps advance the football, at least a few yards down the field, on some important issues for the benefit of the people who brought me to the party, which were craft producers and craft brewers.
So that's an exciting prospect and I hope will be a great capstone to my career.
On the Work He Does at the Brewer’s Association
Traditional GC Work + State and Federal Government Affairs Work
So probably about 20% of my work is traditional general counsel and if I need heavy lifting, we have good outside counsel relationships.
The bulk of it is government affairs. I think over the course of a year, it splits evenly between federal and state. Right now with the state legislature in session, states are probably looming much larger than federal, but you would have a period of time, for example, drafting comments to federal rulemaking, where I'm largely dedicated to the federal side. So it's a mix. And we're building out our capability at the state government affairs level, which has been exciting and fun to stand up a program that was much more de minimis until very recently.
Traditionally, we have been reactive at the state level. Where if a state association came to us and said, can you help us? We would. And the ability to help was limited to, particularly prior to me coming on board, they could pay a little bit of McDermott time for me to help, but it was limited. And we have our regulatory and government affairs manager who could spend some time on state law issues, but it was not a lot of bench strength to give really deep help.
Now what we have done is, by bringing me in-house and we've brought on our first state government affairs manager, we have plans to expand that we will have people who are directly engaged at the state level, and we can be much more proactive in trying to drive policy at the state level. We're never going to do anything or at least we can't anticipate a situation where we do something against the will of the local state association, but it's no longer going to be reactive.
We are going to try to set priorities and drive a policy forward in areas that we think we can move the national needle on state law issues in a very deliberative way that we just didn't have the capability to do, just a year or two ago.
On What Makes a Good Strategy
Disciplined Annual Planning, Defining Priorities with Clear Resources to Support Them, and Recognizing When to Shift as Needed
One of the things that The Brewers Association is amazingly good at is their budgeting process is incredibly organized. And as part of that process, there's an annual plan, which I'm going to be heading into the annual planning for 2023 in just a couple of months.
And it will be a very fully fleshed out plan before the end of the year. They are very disciplined and organized that way. I've been through this now for a year and a half. But it starts organically as issues come up and priorities seem to arise.
We usually will talk to, for example, state association leaders. See what they're thinking. Obviously listening to membership. But after that, you start crystallizing a couple of issues, a couple of priorities, what resources it will take to fulfill that, which is why, we're now building out this state government affairs structure, and it's going to be a process. And we're humble enough to know that, because we've never done it before, there are things that we don't know. So we have to recognize that there may be shifts. But as you start seeing these priorities, then you put them on paper, you beta test them.
We have a committee structure under the board and ultimately that whole annual plan goes up to the board for ratification. It's a very deliberative process and very responsive because our board is 21 members of the brewing community, even including a pair of homebrewers. So we feel that we are very responsive to the community of brewers and brewing enthusiasts in a way that a lot of trade associations just aren't.
On How the Brewer’s Association Differs From Other Associations
Represents Interests in Member Brewers of All Sizes, Gains Revenue from Consumer Facing Shows, and Has a Publishing Arm
The sad fact is trade associations, their biggest couple of members pretty much call the shots. And frankly, occasionally we hear that perception of us. But we have a board that is represented by people running 3000 barrel brew, they're running very small breweries. And we make sure that we want to be representative of our entire gamut from The Boston Beer Company, Sam Adams, which is our largest member, right on down to your tiny little taproom down the street that makes, you know, 500 barrels a year. So we're very careful about that.
And the other thing that makes us very different is we have a whole commercial side, I guess is the way to put it. Which liberates us from a lot of the trade association issues. We have a much smaller percentage of our dues come from membership dues. We make several million dollars a year on a trade show. We make several million dollars a year on a consumer-facing show called the Great American Beer Festival and those revenue generating activities allow us to have the freedom of not being tied to one large member that's paying 50% of our dues. That is a powerful tool for us and it allows us to be responsive to all our members.
By the way, another thing that the Brewers Association has that's unique is we have a publishing arm. So we published several books on brewing science every year or brewing culture. And we have two different magazines, one for home brewers, one for professional brewers.
On the Importance of Diversity of Membership
You Must Be Conscious and Deliberate
I'm the general counsel, so I have only a small role in that. i think we try to be representative of our membership. But we're also very conscious and deliberate about diversity. And certainly racial and gender diversity is one aspect of that, but also geographic diversity and then something that is very important to us is size diversity.
We were probably behind where we should have been when we formed our diversity, equity, and inclusion committee five years ago. We should have been probably 10, 15 years ago or more. But we try to be conscious of that.
And in some cases, certainly when it comes to size and brewery business model, it's baked right into the bylaws. I was part of the committee that created The Brewers Association when it merged The Association of Brewers and the old Brewers Association of America, and we baked right into the bylaws that there were going to be two seats for homebrewers. That they would be a constituency that we wanted to have representation on the board.
We baked into it that there would be brewpubs who are a hybrid manufacturer restaurant, different from packaging breweries. Now at the time, the concept of the taproom really was not - I guess there were probably a few breweries that operated that business model, but it didn't get recognized as its own business model. Well we recognized, about five years ago, that more and more of our members had embraced this sort of local pub on-premise sale model. And we amended the bylaws to create a representation for them. So it's very deliberative to do that.
And it's funny, whenever you talk to a large member, they say, ah, so much of the stuff, you do this for the little guys. And you talk to the little guys and you always hear the complaint like, oh, everything you do, it's above my head, it's for those big guys. But we really try hard and I think we do a pretty good job, notwithstanding the inevitable grumbles, of catering to the whole brewing community, the wider brewing community. But it takes work. And I suspect that the fact that we have an incredibly high membership number among potential members, and yet we hear a bit of grumbling from everybody means we're doing it just right.
On Cannabis Legalization: No Official Position But …
Certain Principles Should Apply: Excise Tax, Separate Out from Alcohol Regulation Structure, and Prohibit Unproven Health Claims
So let me first say, in my practice at McDermott, I was starting to dabble in that because it's a highly regulated industry in a lot of states. They've put the regulation under they're now the alcohol and cannabis board. So that was starting to creep into my practice and I think some of the analogies to the end of prohibition are definitely there, some of the policy considerations are there.
From the beer industry standpoint, we do not take an official position pro or anti legalization. The one thing that we have made our voice known is that if legalization happens at a federal level, there are certain principles that we think need to be done. We think that it requires an excise tax just like alcohol has an excise tax. We don't think that it's a great idea to roll it up with the current existing alcohol regulatory infrastructure. Because, quite candidly, what we've seen in a number of states, despite the best efforts of very good people at those state agencies, it basically sucks the oxygen out of the air for that agency for 10 years. And we don't want to see an alcohol market where our regulator basically goes dormant for 10 years. So we think that's a significant principle.
We also think that some of the rules, to be quite honest, you see a lot of claims about cannabis and CBD that are unproven health claims. We think that's dangerous. The regulation of alcohol, which basically has a presumptive no health claims rule (it gets much more complicated than that), but we think a similar approach should apply to cannabis.
That FDA has found some very good medical uses for cannabinoids and once FDA has approved it, great. Until then, you should not be marketing an intoxicant as a health medicine. That's one of the great evils that led to prohibition is that people used to sell booze as patent medicine. Eh, it'll make you feel better. You're depressed. Here you go. That was an awful practice in the 19th century in the U.S. and early 20th century and coming out of prohibition, they wisely banned it. So we think that's another one of the basic principles. But as far as the final question of legalization, we're not going to take a position.
On Embracing Certain Drinks Beyond Beer
Cannabis Beers and Fermented Hard Seltzers
Our membership has definitely expressed an interest in that [Cannabis Beers]. That's, by the way, another principle we don't think, unless, the science significantly changes - we think mixing cannabis and alcohol is a terrible idea. And so we would not encourage that, but we do think that there's going to be a market upon legalization for NA (Non Alcoholic) beers, where the intoxicant, if you will, is a cannabinoid and not alcohol.
We've actually published a book on it, a kind of a how-to by a great guy who I've known for decades. He was the creator of Blue Moon, back when he worked at Coors. Really talented brewer, and he and his wife about five years ago, six years ago, started a brewery in Colorado called Ceria and they make non-alcoholic CBD and cannabis infused beverages. And a guy with his brewing chops and now experience we thought was the right person to educate.
We have embraced beyond beer. Hard seltzer is something that a lot of our members are making. And so I believe we have a book coming out or maybe we already have published - this is terrible, I remember reviewing the contract - a book on hard seltzer making. Because it's a little bit different than making a conventional barley based beer. We have been flexible and we go where our members are going.
So this has an important distinction. Most of them are fermented beverages, so they are beers. Now, one big brand it's made by Gallo, the wine company that's made with liquor which we think is a fundamentally different product. When you're making a 5% liquor product, all you need to do is make your vodka and add water. Fermenting takes longer and most hard seltzers are fermented sugar products.
On the Focus on Small Independent Brewery Beers
I Love The Small Business Aspect Of What We Do
By the way we prefer that people drink small, independent brewery beers. What we do is all about small business. Sam Adams is our biggest member and obviously they're still small in the brewing industry, they have, I don't know, one and a half percent market share. Anheuser-Busch has 45% market share to give you a scale comparison. But most of our members are very small and we love the small business aspect of what we do.
We have a seal which is an upside down bottle that says independent on it. And if you see that seal on a can or bottle of beer, that brewery is not owned by one of the big producers. If it's important to you to support small business, then that's something you want to look at.
On His Favorite Style of Beers
Hoppy Beers, IPAs, and Malty Beers
Oh, so it's very easy for me to say this. I don't have a single favorite beer because I love the gamut of beers. There are some beer styles I like better. I like a combination of some very hoppy beers, beers with a lot of that dry, bitterness, maybe Sierra, Nevada Pale Ale is such a classic.
But also tons of great IPA's being made. I also like good, nice malty beers. A friend of mine, his neighbor, is a new beer brand here in Montgomery county and just made an Imperial stout. It's called black is beautiful. And it's part of a program that one of our board members actually initiated on creating a beer recipe and a name black is beautiful that then goes into social justice causes.
And his Imperial stout, the local one, which is made with beignets, of all things, is absolutely delicious. But it's sweet and chocolatey. Sort of the polar opposite of a bitter beer. So there's a lot of choices out there. And thank goodness now I have thousands of choices where when I started this journey, It was hard to find craft beer.
On What It Means to be a Lawyer Who Leads
Leading by Example and with Excellence
I would put it in two buckets. The first is leading by example and leading by example starts with excellence in your work. It starts with also being practical. The law is a tool for society. It is not an end to itself. I think sometimes lawyers fall in love with whether it's legal writing or their pleadings or whatever. No, it should be practical. You need to be solving a societal problem or a business problem or a person's problem.
Then the leadership comes when you are excellent. When you know what you're doing and people respect you, then the leadership comes because you're the one who is going to be writing about things and being a thought leader in the industry because of doing all those other things. So I guess it's that two prong view of it.
On What Excellence in Law Means
Never Misrepresent or Exaggerate, Be Accurate, and Don’t “Over Lawyer”
Number one, and this is table stakes, never be wrong, never misrepresent, never exaggerate. That was always true in my private practice and now we're very careful, I feel compared to other trade associations. Not all, but we feel like a lot of what you see out there in advocacy has false sky is falling predictions. We try to be very accurate. And so you build credibility that way.
And excellence doesn't mean over lawyering things, but at least it means if you're going to take a practical approach to it that you're absolutely clear that, Hey, I'm not sure what the real legal answer is. It would take me a week to figure that out, but I can tell you that there's probably a set of risks here, and we're going to take a practical approach and say, don't do it that way.
Much like a good doctor, right? If a good doctor starts spewing to me about the muscles in my hand. What the heck do I know about that? But, if he or she can articulate to me the relevant risks in a real world way and lead me to a good decision. That's all I want. And I think lawyers also need to have that skill where they're always accurate, even if they aren't being technically precise, because technical precision sometimes is an enemy to getting to the right practical advice. And again, as I said, the law is a tool for society.
On One Thing He Would Improve about the Legal Industry
Remove Performative Deadlines and Focus on Mentoring the Next Generation of Lawyers
Two things. One is we need to, you said one thing, but I'm going to give you two. One thing, and this is not the legal industry only, is we have too much of our business culture has the idea that like, oh, it's Friday afternoon. We want an answer to this, Monday morning and everybody has to then out macho themselves to say, oh yeah, happy to do it. How about a conference call on Sunday morning? Now there are times where crisis calls for that. But I feel like in my legal practice, it doesn't happen at the BA, but in my legal practice. I felt like three out of four times clients were imposing those deadlines because we're going to move fast. We're going to be tough. We want people to show that we're moving quickly, even if it's destructive of home life. And so I think that is probably a problem and I don't think it stems from the law.
I think those business people are doing that to the salespeople, to the marketing people, to the legal people, to everybody. And I think that's a cultural problem that's larger than the law, but it reflects in the law.
And then secondly is, and we talked about this kind of mentoring I've really been enjoying as I'm starting to do it here at BA. It's very difficult to do under the pressure of the billable hour. It's very difficult. I hate the billable hour personally. But there needs to be a way, especially for younger lawyers, and it's going to be particularly important in the age of remote working, to find those times to just invest in things that aren't immediately billable. But that will advance somebody's career long term. And that investment is often very hard to do in a billable hour situation.
We need the next generation of lawyers and we want them to be excellent. We can only do that if we're spending the time to educate them on what we know. Being a lawyer, it's not a capital intensive business, right? It's all about what's in here. And if you can't download that to the next generation you're losing a lot.
Ultimate Frisbee, D&D, Improv Cooking, and Hosting Beer Tastings
I make sure that I get a couple of ultimate games in a week. I get in at least a half hour at the gym every day. So that's the physical side. This is my geek alert here but I love Dungeons and Dragons. So my neighbor roped me into that game and within six months I'm like, I want to DM. In fact, tonight is my Monday night game. So that's been terrific.
And then I love just a lot of household stuff. I love cooking. I'm an improvisational cook. And then my beer hobby and I do a little bit of home brewing. I just made a batch of Mead, which was just killer. Although I need to brew another batch, I'm an empty nester too so I used to brew with my kids but I can't anymore.
And then the final thing is beer tastings. I love hosting people who are less completely immersed in beer as myself. I have a Friday group of beer geeks that we have now remotely. We gather and taste beers together. But I love getting a group of 10 friends who are not as beer knowledgeable as me and sitting them down with dinner and then pairing beers and walking them through the various tastes they're tasting. And that's a lot of fun.
On a Piece Of Practical Advice To Leaders And Future Leaders In Law
Marry Your Vocation With Your Calling
So you're lawyer, if you're listening to this and as a lawyer you've already picked a vocation. Now find your calling. The key to successful professional life is marrying a vocation and a calling. And if you're listening to this podcast, you've already got your vocation. Although you don't have to, right? Jim Cook, who started Boston Beer Company, has a J.D., ended up making beer. So it's not prerequisite that now you're stuck with that as your vocation, but you've probably chosen the law as your vocation.
Now what's your calling? For me, it was beer. But who knows what else it could be. There's unbelievable things that you can do with a law degree that you never even dreamed of and that none of your professors in law school have even heard of. And that's the joy of the law.
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
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About the Author
Written by Sigalle Barness
Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.
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