Cultiva Law is a shining star in the cannabis legal landscape. Not only because of the staggering success that the firm has amassed in its typical low-key fashion, but also because of the hundreds of cannabis retailers and growers that hold them in the highest regards.
Aaron Pelley, the founder of the firm – has worked to embody the firm’s values and culture. A culture of work/life balance. He has also assembled a diverse team and places a high value on having every contribution recognized and respected.
Pelley’s career could easily have gone in other directions after starting out defending marijuana growers at the height of the medical cannabis days. What he saw was a significant gap in the way canna-lawyers treated the industry.
Much like many vendors in the cannabis space, the firms that represent “emerging markets” swooped in and treated the new cannabis companies as a cash grab. Taking ridiculous flat fees, providing minimal insight or service, and treating cannabis companies as just another stepping stone to the next emerging market.
Aaron wanted to make it known that the firm was around before the green rush. Furthermore, he intends to remain long after cannabis would be considered an emerging market. He established a boutique law firm; one of the largest that focuses specifically and exclusively on cannabis.
Cannabis Law is the main focus, not some side project of a larger firm. They are not waiting for the next bitcoin or another fad to chase. The firm has organically expanded into the states that his clients wanted to be in and continues to be a beacon of knowledge and strength, for cannabis companies, across the west coast.
The following interview was edited for clarity and publication style
RMR: Aaron, tell us how you came to create Cultiva Law? It was a fairly well-established firm, founded originally in 2007. How did this all start?
Aaron Pelley: I was going to law school in Salem, Oregon, and when I moved to Seattle in 2006. I wanted to work in an area of law that gave my life a little more meaning and focused my practice on the War on Drugs. I took on numerous high profile cannabis cases. Some of the biggest in the Northwest. I enjoyed being connected to the medical cannabis community but by 2010, most of the outlaws I was defending were wanting me to help them with their lease agreements and partnerships. I saw an opportunity to build something, under the cannabis niche I had already been practicing with for years. It was an easy transition, once I had the right team in place. At the time, the Cultiva Law had just a few lawyers, but over the years we have followed our clients and branched out to other states and built a brilliant team, all up and down the West Coast. In some ways, I am doing the same thing my clients are doing, building a reputation and brand that represents our values and work ethic and slowly moving into new markets.
RMR: What were you doing before law school?
Aaron Pelley: I came from a working-class family and held a number of working-class jobs. I worked a union job for a number of years that put me through law school and for a short time I was a teacher.
RMR: What led you to law school?
Aaron Pelley: Well, for those old enough to remember, my dad watched an old, black and white show called Perry Mason, every day when he came home for lunch. For a while, at least, I wanted to be Perry Mason.
RMR: What led you to cannabis, as a focus in your practice?
Aaron Pelley: It was not completely by accident. I was already involved with a non-profit that was focused on patients’ rights and had been working on some smaller “reclamation” projects, forcing the police to give back cannabis to patients. A rather large case came along, where the police had seized a couple’s medical marijuana. Ten pounds. We resolved the case and I got a court order that forced the police to give my clients back his ten pounds of cannabis in one and half pound increments. Making it the first police station that was also a dispensary. That case got a lot of press, so I embraced the moniker “pot lawyer” way before it was cool and long before it was corporate.
RMR: When you started out, before full legalization, what did you like about the practice, what stands out looking back?
Aaron Pelley: I think it was a different culture. Everyone was coming together for legalization. For the plant. For the larger principals. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of egos and a lot of people were very polarizing and divisive. But, I was lucky to be in the middle of one of the most important movements of my generation and even if things didn’t turn out the way everyone wanted, or in some cases, even hoped, it is still amazing to walk into a fully built-out grow and see thousands of pounds of cannabis growing. Just a few years earlier people were going to prison and now they are being profiled in Forbes. It’s inspiring. We fought for that.
RMR: So you obviously changed your practice as it moved from medical to recreational.
Aaron Pelley: That’s right. I continued to get more exposure to new practice areas but I recognized that my strength was being a trial lawyer and that my clients’ needs started to extend beyond that. They needed attorneys that understood mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property, securities, product liability, and just a host of other areas in corporate law. It was not enough to be a great trial lawyer. I needed to build a team. I have been really lucky because we attract amazing talent and we have built a unique culture for our firm. And I get to stay in my lane and do what I do.
RMR: Are you still in the courtroom?
Aaron Pelley: Yes. It is still my passion. I enjoy building a case and getting it in front of a judge or jury. It’s a performance and art. We handle a lot of civil cases and I also do a lot of work defending licenses for violations. Nowadays, I also do a lot more dispute resolution than I used to and I have begun to embrace the value of mediation and the importance of finding a solution short of going to trial. But going to trial and winning a case will always be what gets me out of bed in the morning. But also, there is a lot of work managing the firm and working with the other attorneys.
RMR: What about the other attorneys at your firm?
Aaron Pelley: We have a pretty fantastic team at each of the offices. They are all skilled in their trade. As I was saying earlier, we are really lucky to attract really talented lawyers. They all were seeking out this particular area of law for one reason or another and they have all sacrificed to help me build a strong multi-state firm. I think of them as my family and we all lean on each other because we come from such diverse backgrounds.
RMR: Is diversity important to you?
Aaron Pelley: It really is. We try to give more than lip service to diversity. We are trying to build a team that is diverse in every single way. I know we can always do more but we make it a priority in the team we are building. We know that the value of having different experiences and viewpoints makes us a stronger firm and gives a competitive advantage. As an industry, both cannabis and law, we should be doing everything we can to correct this.
RMR: What else distinguishes you from other firms?
Aaron Pelley: Surprisingly, I would think it is more common but we do not take a piece of the action on any company we work with. I am sure this is not always seen as the best business practice, and we have passed on a lot of work because of it. This is something that Ted Bernhard, the Managing Partner at the Portland Office, and I discussed years ago, and we knew that this was going to be the best path for the firm. It allows us to never wonder whether we were going to be in direct conflict or competition with our clients. That is not to say we have never been conflicted from a case, just that we never have to worry about being conflicted because we are competing or in business with our client.
RMR: You’ve handled so many cases over the years. Any cases that come to mind as particularly noteworthy?
Aaron Pelley: We have had cases where we are battling with folks that have a…troubled relationship with the truth. You just have to slowly peel away at the onion. It is amazing when you have that Perry Mason moment. And you get them. But for the Client, who knows the truth all along, it can be really frustrating. But the cases that really stand out, unfold like an HBO mini-series. They are just crazy. It is never so much one thing, as it is, so many things. I could do a whole separate interview, just on that.
RMR: That is going to be our next interview.
Aaron Pelley: Okay. We can do that.
RMR: I presume you’ve learned a lot of lessons from being in the cannabis industry over the years. Care to share some of them?
Aaron Pelley: I am not sure where to start. It is just that on the growing side, you just have so much oil and water. Farmers do not generally think like businessmen. And businessmen and financiers do not view the world the way farmers do. I am not sure you would want them to. So it is important to get outside of your own thinking if you are going to successfully invest or partner in cannabis. Also, taking on investors means you may have to compromise on your vision and maybe even your values. Even then, one of two things are eventually going to happen, you will start making money or losing money, and knives come out.
RMR: For all your passion for cannabis and the law, I know you are equally dedicated to your family. How did you meet your partner?
Aaron Pelley: I met Autumn in Oregon over 27 years ago at a social gathering. She has been putting up with me and my pursuits of music, art, education, and eventually the law. We have two beautiful daughters that bring a smile to my face every day. We work almost every day together and still come home and love to hang out.
Find Aaron Pelley
If you’re in need of legal advice or consultation, Cultiva Law offices are located in downtown Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. You’ll have access to their set of sophisticated, agile, and effective attorneys 24/7 via phone. Whether you need help with business law, litigation, or compliance, Aaron Pelley and his team will provide you with unprecedented care.