Endurance: Alcohol law is an incredibly diverse area covering a complex system of laws. Learning and becoming an expert in your trade takes a significant commitment to learning and continuing to learn and keeping up with trends.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marbet Lewis.
Award winning lawyer, Marbet Lewis is a first generation Cuban-American and an active member of Women of the Vine & Spirits. She has focused her practice on the laws governing the alcohol industry and the manufacture, importation, and sale of alcohol beverage products since 2004.
She represents clients in all aspects of alcohol and business licensing, alcohol licensee mergers and acquisitions, negotiation of asset purchase agreements and required alcohol use provisions, license transfers and licensing due diligence, trade practices, alcohol product advertising and review of marketing agreements, importation agreements, label approvals, and regulatory compliance guidance.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
I absolutely had no interest in law growing up initially. I was always much more interested in the arts. Both my parents immigrated from Cuba at a young age and both dropped out of school as soon as they were legally allowed. Education was not hugely emphasized in our household and much less for women. I think culturally at the time, the emphasis in my family was on marriage and more traditional roles for women. I’m actually the first person in my immediate family to go to college and I’m proud there have been several others that have followed me.
My interest in the law came from my father’s frequent legal issues including a variety of immigration problems. As I grew older and became more aware of his issues and my mother’s struggle to provide for us, I knew education was the only way to a more stable future. I joined the debate team in High School. My interest in law grew from there and I focused all my energy on ignoring family pressures and on getting into college. I worked hard and earned scholarships and made my way through college and law school finally entering the legal market in 2004 at a very large international law firm.
I was introduced to alcohol law by another associate in the firm (now my husband). He was just starting to build his practice but needed help with expanding his scope of services and catering to South Florida’s Hispanic community. I think this was our first lesson on the importance of diversity and inclusion. From there we made a great team professionally and grew our practice utilizing the benefits and platform of Big Law to eventually founding our own specialized boutique law firm at Spiritus Law.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
My practice is definitely unique and not something I knew even existed as an area of law while I was in law school. I focus on the laws governing the production, distribution and sale of alcohol throughout the U.S. My clients are primarily in the hospitality sector or involved in the manufacturing of alcohol. It’s an incredibly dynamic and diverse area or practice that’s best suited for those with an entrepreneurial spirit. There is never a dull moment in our office and 2020 certainly put our entire industry to a significant test of endurance. However, there has been great innovation in alcohol regulatory laws over the past year so there is a bright side to the immediate catastrophic impact on the industry.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Passionate, Courageous and Empathetic. I think you have to be passionate about what you do and have the courage to commit to achieving your goals. That’s not to say I’m necessarily passionate about alcohol laws, but I am passionate about my team. I’m also very passionate about my clients’ businesses and supporting their long-term goals and creative strategies. However, I think my most unique and valued quality is my ability to empathize. The pandemic definitely taught me the true value of empathy. From empathizing with our team members and their struggles to empathizing with our clients and their financial constraints. My ability to help our clients through their toughest times, even when they could not afford legal services, strengthened our client relationships, and helped me understand their businesses at a much deeper level.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
No, I think success comes from hard work. Luck may place you at the right place, at the right time but it’s ultimately hard work that gets you where you want to be. I think a lot of my colleagues had the benefit of inherited reputations and connections but it’s always hard work that helps level the playing field.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
Not for me, but I do think where you go to school can impact your career in a positive way. I really had to go to the school I could afford and fortunately that school turned out to be a great option. I went to a small, lower rated law school but maximized the relationships with my professors and all the resources our school had to offer. I graduated at the top of my class and that opened doors into Big Law. However, schools with strong alumni associations and national reputations can open doors just by being enrolled. The legal profession can sometimes be more so about who you know than what you know which is unfortunate but very true and something any prospective law student should consider.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
I was incredibly insecure at 20–20ish. My sisters had already been married and had children by the time they were 20 just like most of the other women in my family. They chose to emphasize and focus on raising their families which is also admirable. My great aunt though was the rebel. She never had children and she taught me that ambition is a gift. She also told me not to worry about or focus on trying to be nice. She told me to be firm and trust myself. So, if I could go back in time I would tell my much younger self to embrace ambition and change. Ambition is not an obstacle but rather an asset.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
I think my primary motivation at this point in my career is innovation in the alcohol industry. A large part of my practice focuses on regulatory paperwork and compliance but every now and then, we have the opportunity to create or change law. That ability to influence how an industry will operate can be addicting and it is definitely something I seek out in any representation.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The most interesting projects I’m working on now all focus on hospitality industry recovery efforts and helping our clients get back online. Many of our clients lost their in-house teams during the pandemic and now have a huge gap in historical knowledge around business practices and regulatory requirements for keeping their business and alcohol licenses active. So, it is exciting to help educate new teams and in-house counsel on our prior work and getting their businesses back on track.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
The next chapter of my career really is focused on creative opportunities and helping our clients launch innovative concepts that disrupt traditional business practices and regulations. I’ve been working with more start-ups lately and new business concepts and hope to continue to attract that type of business.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
This is an interesting question because I think my most successful war story is also probably my least profitable project. In Florida, alcohol licenses are either obtained from the State or purchased on the open market. Most smaller business like neighborhood bars and lounges do not qualify for a State issued license and are forced to purchase what can be a very costly alcohol license on the open market. Frequently these businesses, especially minority owned businesses have limited access to capital and funding. They find themselves needing financing for alcohol licenses and can easily be taken advantage of by private lenders. The forced long term closures on the bar industry left many of these small business owners without income or ability to pay their alcohol license lenders. Early on in the pandemic, I was able to help some of these businesses fend off lenders that were quick to foreclose on their liquor license. We had to offer our service for free because we just could not turn our backs on these businesses owners.
The funniest story would be when we had to coordinate the closing and acquisition of a very large movie theater chain with the release of the one of the Hunger Games films. We represented a national movie theater chain and needed to be sure all alcohol licenses transferred simultaneously on the selected closing date which wad the night before the movie premier. It was so stressful that no one on our team could even hear anything about the movie until we recovered from the long working hours.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
Our office has a flexible remote work policy so we are all on a bit of a hybrid schedule. Working remotely is almost a necessity now because we all want balance and a long commute is the biggest obstacle to time management. I don’t see law firms moving toward fully remote practices especially where large teams are involved because there is still value in the face to face meeting and comradery that can come with making those personal connections. But, I do think the days of being tied to a desk are starting to fade in the past generation. Technology enables us to be more mobile than ever before and that brings with it new opportunity especially for working parents that need to juggle parenting and career ambitions.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
I think COVID taught the business word that we need to embrace change and innovation. Our small firm made a huge investment in infrastructure and technology when we opened. I remember having financial consultants try to shift our spending to investment in new office space and adding new partners or practice areas but our focus on infrastructure and technology paid off. We shifted to remote working seamlessly when so many much larger firms that resisted technology had a much harder time. We picked up several clients because of our ability to continue working without a hiccup or interruption in communications.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
The nature of networking has definitely changed and for the better in many ways. First of all, networking has become much more inclusive and safe as law firms have instituted policies against sexual harassment. Referrals continue to be the best and most effective way to grow a book of business. So, it is refreshing to see networking opportunities open up for all of us rather than just the “good ole boys club.”
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Social media is really about connecting with your audience. My best advice is to think about what attracts you to someone else’s social media pages or new feed? Is it the wealth of legal opinions and scholarly analysis or is it someone’s ability to be human and relatable? I think ultimately the best strategy is to analyze your intended target audience and be yourself!
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
- Endurance: Alcohol law is an incredibly diverse area covering a complex system of laws. Learning and becoming an expert in your trade takes a significant commitment to learning and continuing to learn and keeping up with trends.
- Focus: Again, alcohol laws are fairly extensive and complex so representation requires intense focus on the client’s overall objectives along with the precise details of their business operations.
- Patience: Most of our projects contemplate long regulatory filing and approval processes. Client goals and objectives can change during that time so shifts in strategy or timelines are very common and we need ongoing patience in resetting our plans and moving forward.
- Courage: We frequently need to question agency interpretations or outdated regulatory laws that no longer serve modern business objectives. Continuing to press on or push an issue with regulators takes courage especially when disrupting a long time pattern of governmental decision-making.
- Team Work: Alcohol law is high paced practice and support of your team members is critical for success. Building a team requires dedication to creating a collaborative and inclusive work environment so everyone benefits from diversity of experience.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
That would absolutely be Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She is a trail blazer in the legal community and it would be so rewarding to hear her advice and guidance on navigating through many of the biases and closed doors she encountered in her career.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!