Raleigh lawyer turns love of food and wine into law practice

aweigl@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2014 

“For someone who wanted to own their own business, it's incredibly satisfying,” says Laura Collier, who focuses her law practice to work with food and beverage entrepreneurs.

JEFF BRAMWELL — Jeff Bramwell

Laura Collier dreamed of opening a wine, cheese and charcuterie shop with two friends in downtown Durham.

That dream didn’t become reality, but the experience showed this lawyer-turned-wine-expert that there was an opportunity to combine her law school training with her love of food and wine. Collier, 32, has created The Spirited Lawyer, a Raleigh law practice that provides legal services for food and beverage business owners.

“I really like to feel like I'm a part of all these businesses in the Triangle and North Carolina,” Collier said. “For someone who wanted to own their own business, it's incredibly satisfying.”

A lawyer working with small-business owners isn’t anything new; lawyers have been helping restaurant and bar owners navigate alcohol laws for as long as the government has regulated these beverages. Often large firms will have a lawyer or two whose main practice is helping large restaurant chains and other business owners deal with the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. In Raleigh, regional law firm Nexsen Pruet has two lawyers dedicated to this task.

The fact that Collier can open such a niche law practice is proof of how robust the Triangle food scene has become. Every week, news seems to break about another food truck getting on the road, a new brewery or bottle shop in the works or a restaurant on the horizon. All these small-business owners need help navigating the world of state and federal regulations, permits and contracts.

Collier brings her own experiences as a hopeful small-business owner to the task. Plus, she’s plugged in to the local food scene by marriage: her husband, Matt Fern, is beverage director of Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen’s restaurant group and a partner at Poole’s Downtown Diner.

“She’s seen a lot of questions that people have through her personal experience – that’s absolutely invaluable,” said Phillip Zucchino, co-owner of The Wine Feed, a downtown Raleigh wine shop and online store.

Zucchino worked first with Collier as a wine consultant when he and Philip Rubin started the local wine delivery and online business in 2011. By the time they were ready to open a new retail store on Glenwood Avenue, Collier had started her new law practice. “The hardest part with alcohol is that the laws are very complex and different from state to state,” he said. “Having someone to sift through the ins and outs of all that was helpful.”

Mary Margaret McCamic, one of the two friends with whom Collier was going to open that shop in Durham, said Collier’s legal training and understanding of the local food scene make her ideally suited for this work: “She’s able to help businesses in a really unique way because she actually gets it.”

McCamic added: “You can figure things out maybe by yourself, but it just takes too long.”

Collier, 32, grew up in Tennessee but came to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to be a collegiate swimmer. (She was an ACC champion in the 200 backstroke in 2003.) She graduated with a political science degree. Since she liked reading, writing and debating, she applied and was accepted at Georgetown Law.

During this same time period, Collier became interested in wine. Her parents had moved to Germany when she was in college. She and her sister would often visit. Her parents were staying in Frankfurt and began to explore France’s nearby Alsace wine region and later the Rhone and Loire Valley regions.

‘An awakening’

“It was kind of an awakening for all of us,” Collier said.

Her father, Bill Collier, said he remembered the family’s conversion to wine lovers, but his daughter, Laura, went further: “She just kept going.”

During an extended break between undergrad and law school, Collier got a job at Chapel Hill Wine Co., which had opened a block from her house. Later when she moved to Washington for law school, she got a part-time job at Schneiders, a wine shop on Capitol Hill.

Graduating from law school in 2008, she went to work at large international law firm, handling the litigation that results from banking transactions. Collier said it was long hours and left little time for anything outside of work. A year later, the law firm began laying off associates. During the first round, she was terrified to lose her job. By the third round, she was unhappy enough with her increased workload and lack of work-life balance to resign.

Collier was able to leave the practice of law because she was lucky enough to not be burdened by student loan debt; her parents had paid her law school tuition. Asked his reaction when his daughter said she was going to give up being a lawyer, Bill Collier said, “It was a little bit of a bummer ... I’m glad she got the education. I think it will serve her well.”

After Collier left the law firm, she began talking to McCamic, who also was on the UNC swim team, about opening a cheese, wine and charcuterie shop with McCamic and McCamic’s husband. While researching what was required to open that business, Collier said she discovered: “I’m using my legal brain a little bit.”

Unfortunately, two things happened that put the kibosh on their business plans. First, a competitor, Reliable Cheese Co., opened in downtown Durham. Second, they ran the numbers and realized it was going to be very tough to support three people on this one business. It may have been the right decision because Reliable Cheese closed about a year after it opened.

Inspiration

The experience inspired Collier to start her law practice to help others who want to join the Triangle food and beverage scene.

“She’s in the scene. She’s generally interested in what is happening,” said Rochelle Johnson, a co-owner with her husband, Nick Hawthorne-Johnson, of The Cookery in Durham.

The couple have hired Collier to help with Cookery business as well as work for their other business interests, Ponysaurus Brewery and Dashi, a new ramen shop opening soon in Durham. Johnson added: “She’s someone we can talk to over a beer.”

If there was any way to sell legal services to a restaurant or bar owner, Collier has figured out the best way is over a beverage.

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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