Inside Track: Brewing up a career
Infante’s love of arguing, beer helps him create practice as alcoholic beverage lawyer.
For a while, Joseph Infante was in line to be a geologist, based on a suggestion by his older brother of an easy class at Michigan State University.
He was giving up on years of dreams of becoming a doctor, mostly because biochemistry and microbiology were not in line with the way Infante’s brain works. At some point during his junior year at MSU, Infante decided he was going to be an environmental lawyer.
Today, he is not an environmental lawyer.
“Trial lawyer and booze lawyer, it’s a good combo,” Infante said of his current career as principal at Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone. “I did a moot court and appellate arguments, and I was pretty good at that, standing up and arguing. So I said, ‘I guess I’ll be a trial lawyer.’”
Infante said he likes to argue, so his fit into litigation work was natural but so too is the practice he started at Miller Canfield in 2009.
At the time, Infante and a friend were homebrewing — a lot. There were weekends when both friends were each making five-gallon batches. At one point, the pair had a 60-gallon wine barrel, a 53-gallon bourbon barrel and a 15-gallon bourbon barrel full of beer aging for a year.
“We got into it a little too hard, we were making too much beer,” Infante said. “But because we were so into it, we started to know a lot of the brewers and owners, and basically, in talking to them, we found out that there weren’t any lawyers who specialized in beer.”
Most brewery owners, both established and startups, were — and often still do — using their father’s friends or a friend of a friend who didn’t really know the industry and “fumble their way through licensing.”
Infante knew he liked beer enough to learn the ins and outs of the complicated regulations that plague the alcoholic beverage industry, many of which stem back to Prohibition. He asked Miller Canfield leadership if he could start attending conferences, received the OK and plenty of support to launch a beverage practice.
“That was a really fun way to start a practice,” Infante said. “It involved me going to a brewery on a Tuesday afternoon, sitting at the bar and having a beer. At most of the small breweries, it’s the owner tending bar. That’s how I got my first couple clients.”
At the time, there were few attorneys practicing in the alcoholic beverage industry, so Infante’s specialization stood out.
Now, the practice has grown into about half of Infante’s workload, while still spending much of the rest of his time as a trial litigation attorney. Infante is admitted to practice in the State of Michigan, Western District of Michigan, Eastern District of Michigan, Northern District of Illinois, 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
He said his work as an alcoholic beverage attorney — he represents wineries and distilleries along with breweries — essentially is acting as a small business attorney, but with the requirement of understanding much more stringent regulations.
Infante said unless an attorney regularly practices in the beverage arena, there are many Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and Food and Drug Administration regulations that can trip up the most seasoned lawyer.
Switching up his career choice from doctor to lawyer paid off for Infante, who said a lot of attorneys are envious of the practice he started at Miller Canfield. He dreamed of being a doctor, since growing up in Muskegon with a banker father and a stay-at-home mother.
Infante had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his career ended up resembling his grandfather’s, who was a Cuban immigrant in 1961.
“He left his practice in Cuba and came to the U.S. and picked tomatoes in Florida,” Infante said, adding his grandfather came to West Michigan and served as a law consultant.
Despite the lawyer lineage, Infante said the start to his law school education at Ohio State University was a difficult transition. At MSU, he didn’t write papers in his science-based undergrad classes. For a student who didn’t study much through college, law school was a shock to the system — Infante said he remembers receiving a C in one class.
“The exams in law school were totally different; one test with four or so essay questions handwritten,” Infante said. “I didn’t know how to do that. That was a huge transition, and I did really bad my first semester. I just had to learn how to do the classes.”
Once he started practicing, first in school in moot court, then in internships and his jobs, he began to excel. Infante hit his stride when Miller Canfield gave him the signal to build the beverage practice. Without the firm’s willingness to let him launch the practice, even encouraging him to frequent the same conferences every year, he said his specialty might not exist.
“They really gave me the freedom to do what I wanted,” Infante said. “They never questioned it and really got behind it, asking what I needed.”
As Infante started frequenting the beverage conferences the past several years, he has become friends with the same collection of attorneys who also end up at the same conferences each year. This week, he’ll share a house in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with part of the group at the Wine, Beer and Spirits Law Conference.
It’s the same group he convened with at a beer bar in Philadelphia in May this year at the Craft Brewers Conference.
During May’s conference, a collection of attorneys, including the general counsels for some of the nation’s largest craft breweries, gathered and decided to launch the Craft Beverage Lawyers Guild. The guild has two levels of membership, one for lawyers with a decent-sized alcoholic beverage practice and another for those who want to learn how to practice in the industry, Infante said.
The Craft Beverage Lawyers Guild also provides a central location for breweries, wineries, distilleries and suppliers to find an attorney in their region who can help with solid legal counsel, Infante said.
The guild helps weed out the imitators who can cause issues with clients when an attorney doesn’t really know the industry, Infante said.
“We are a really small bar, and I basically know everyone in the country who represents suppliers,” Infante said. “It’s changed. Now there are people saying this is a cool practice to get into, or firms are saying it’s ripe for clients and we can say we do this.
“I get clients come and say, ‘I was dealing with so and so and this is what happened,’ and things just weren’t being done right.”
The alcoholic beverage practice at Miller Canfield has grown considerably during the past two years, he said, as his reputation also continues to grow. He regularly presents on the subject nationally, at events such as the Craft Spirits Conference and Vendor Expo and Continuing Legal Education International.
“Everyone thinks I have the coolest practice in the world,” he said. “I love going to court, and the other half is alcohol. It’s fun.”