My career in the food and beverage business began at age 14. My job as a busboy at the Ponderosa Steakhouse was my foray into the business that I have enjoyed, in one form or another, for the last 30 years. When I was old enough to drive, I began milking Holsteins on a dairy farm on the outskirts of our rural Ohio town. Next, I worked as a dishwasher at Peaches Roadhouse, in Wheeling, West Virginia. After moving to Boston for college, I spent my first year working as a food runner, my second year as a waiter, and my third and fourth years as a bartender; these jobs were all at the Harp, an Irish pub across the street from the decommissioned Boston Garden. Although I did not know it at the time, the people I met during those four years of undergraduate school were the beginning of a network that I ultimately relied upon to develop the practice I maintain today.
After undergraduate school, I continued in the trade, bartending full time for four years at various taverns owned by a conglomerate of Irish bar owners in Midtown Manhattan. I was shipped from bar to bar as they opened new establishments. Again, the bartenders, waitresses, waiters, and owners that I met during this period of my life proved to be the underpinnings of my career as a food and beverage attorney, or as we are called in New York, an SLA lawyer, and in New Jersey, an ABC attorney. What both New York and New Jersey food and beverage attorneys have in common is that their practices center around the representation of bars, restaurants, distributors, and manufacturers such as breweries and wineries.
At age 25, I began to stray from my decade-long career in the food and beverage business and opted to follow my father’s chosen path, law school. At the time, I believed law school was my exit strategy from the hospitality business. Law school was my way out of the long nights behind the bar (in Manhattan, the bar does not close until 4 a.m., and it was a rare morning that I returned to my apartment before 6 a.m.). I was determined to work hard, finish at the top of my law school class, and land a high-paying job at a big firm. I continued to tend bar through most of my law school days, the entire time believing that the tips I earned were simply a means to an end, the necessary steps toward that coveted white-shoe firm.
Alas, the path was not so clear. Halfway through my third year, the career counselor at George Washington University Law School arranged an interview at a now-disbanded Amlaw 100 firm. My lunch with the firm’s associates was enlightening. A group of exhausted, downtrodden, and outright unhappy chaps spent the 90-minute lunch feigning love for their firm and for the countless hours they were required to bill to remain in the good graces of the firm’s partners. I realized that a white-shoe firm was not the path for me. I clearly recall several follow-up meetings with that same career counselor in which she desperately encouraged me to take interviews with intellectual property firms, where I would handle the abundance of trademark and copyright work that was then flooding the market. Years of filling ketchup bottles, wiping down back bars, and restocking reach-in beer coolers had left upon me a mark of provinciality that precluded fraternization with the attorneys at these firms. Put simply, I did not fit in.
Instead, I started my legal career as an assistant district attorney in the Office of the Bronx County District Attorney. In the rough and tumble courthouses of the South Bronx, I learned quickly how courtrooms and government agencies work (and do not work), and how vastly different their ecosystems are from the private sector. After meeting my three-year commitment to the DA, I spent two years working for two boutique litigation firms. The day I gave notice at the last of these two firms, one of the equity partners humbly pointed out the reasons not to start my own practice. The support and collegiality were overwhelming as he explained that, “No one who leaves this firm makes it. The last guy that left to start his own practice was never heard from again. You are a rising star here. If you just keep billing the way you have for the last year, you will make partner.” That was the last day of my life as a law firm associate, and the first day of my career as a small law firm practitioner.
Despite my enthusiasm and eagerness to begin my own practice, I had a problem—I didn’t have a single client. One of the bar restaurant operators that employed me more than a decade earlier, a member of the Irish conglomerate mentioned above, invited me to join his team at a “dinner dance” at the United Restaurant & Tavern Owners Association. I accepted and, on that fateful night in December 2010, my ex-employer suggested that I begin handling their liquor license applications to the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA). I explained that this was something I had never done before, but that was all right, my new client responded, because he trusted me. I worked hard for that client. In the years that followed, I regularly represented all six of that operator’s bars before the SLA, filing applications for new liquor licenses and the array of applications that are required to keep a bar and restaurant operator in compliance with the law as their business changes and evolves.
That first client referred me to other bar and restaurant operators, who also became clients. In turn, those clients referred me to their friends and affiliated restaurants. As luck would have it, many of the bartenders that I had worked with 10 years earlier had already opened, or would eventually open, their own bars and their businesses soon became my clients. These bar and restaurant clients led to clients that manufacture alcoholic beverages, breweries, importers, and wholesalers. My bar, restaurant, brewery, and wholesale client base grew over the years, as did my firm’s geographic reach.
Relying on technology to run a nearly paperless office has allowed me to maintain offices in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. I have kept overhead and staff low, and have been careful about the clients I agree to represent. I have joined trade associations and networking groups and developed an optimized website that generates regular leads. I continue, on varying levels, to employ these marketing methods. However, the driver of my practice, the engine if you will, is my deep-rooted history in the food and beverage business. I understand how restaurants and bars work, and appreciate what it takes to produce, brand, and market a craft beer. On a fundamental level, I can relate to the people that work in bars, restaurants, and other food and beverage businesses. I relate to them because I am one of them. They have given me the privilege of representing them because of the care and humility that accompanies my representation of their businesses.
It goes without saying but building a law practice is hard work. The task requires dedication, perseverance, and nerve. Most of all, I believe, building a law practice involves recognizing where opportunity exists and understanding how to maximize each opportunities’ potential. My opportunities to build a practice have arisen, largely, as a result of my background in the food and beverage industry. It is the business I am most familiar with. I am thrilled and honored to remain a part of it. It is the business where I have made lasting friendships and professional relationships, and where I have learned to relate to my fellow humans. I can’t imagine building a law practice in any other way.
About the Author
Michael J. Paleudis is the founder of the Paleudis Law Firm, LLC, a boutique firm in New York City focused on the representation of food and beverage clients, particularly alcoholic beverage clients. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.