10 Questions: This Hudson Valley lawyer serves up a deliciously different practice model
When Jason M. Foscolo decided to go solo, he had something very specific in mind. He wanted to work exclusively with farmers and food entrepreneurs. He wanted to work with his clients like a general counsel would—with depth and consistency—rather than just being the guy who got called in a crisis. He also wanted to live and work where he and his family could be closer to the land. While Foscolo could envision the goal, he wasn’t exactly sure he’d get there with his background as a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps. But achieve it he did. Today, he’s the founder of the Food Law Firm, a four-lawyer shop that serves its clients through an innovative subscription billing service that allows Foscolo to keep both his hours and his income steady. He also lives and works in Red Hook, a charming town in New York’s Hudson Valley known for its family farms, scenic nature trails and sophisticated restaurants.
Tell me about the name the Food Law Firm. I mean, it’s great marketing—there’s no question about what type of law you practice!
Technically, the name of my firm is Jason Foscolo PLLC, but calling it the Food Law Firm gives me the sandbox to integrate all the regulations that affect the food business. My theory from the very beginning was that I had to be comprehensive, to offer soup-to-nuts service for the food business.
You started your career as a JAG lawyer practicing mostly criminal law. How did you get the idea to combine law and food? Did you have food industry experience?
No. I had no food industry experience whatsoever. It was the biggest decision I ever made on limited information! I had no experience in food law, but I always had an interest in food. I was stationed in Japan for two-and-a-half years, and being there really put me on the food path. This was my successful attempt to merge a personal passion with my profession.
How did you learn about food industry law?
My wife and I were on a road trip, and we just happened to pass through Arkansas, and I just happened to notice that the University of Arkansas had an agriculture and food law LLM program, which at the time was the only one in the country. My story is literally that dumb. I was just passing through, and I ended up staying for a year to get my LLM. I owe my entire professional livelihood to that school. It was the best education I ever paid for.
You launched the firm in 2011, and about two years ago, you moved from a traditional hourly fee structure to a subscription-based model. How did that come about?
It took me five years of working hourly before I realized there was a better way. This is a military thing: Keep doing your best, and you’ll get it, or you’ll have the breakthrough. I was always doing OK, but I kept coming across the same problem. I would advise someone on some aspect of law, and it would impact another commercial relationship. For example, if a company adds a gluten-free claim to its label, it affects the co-packer agreement because the manufacturer has to be able to warranty that claim. If a client does something and only tells me about it later, I have to fix it, and it’s an additional expense for the client. It kept coming back to an emotional distance between me and the client. They didn’t need big interventions; they needed more consistent contact, a better partner and a more consistent risk-spotter. I wanted to be able to get ahead of problems, and I felt like the hourly fee was a barrier.
How did you structure the service and explain it to your clients?
I figured I had to get them on a curriculum—to tell them where I was most useful and where they needed to allocate their legal resources. I thought, “What would they need?” and I sat down and made a list that would keep me engaged with them. Like a menu. I said, “Here are 12 things I can do, and if you communicate with me for 30 minutes a week, I can save you six hours.” The subscription plan flowed naturally from that.
Are all your clients subscription now?
Yes. My monthly gross is like 96% subscriber income now. I do a little bit of hourly stuff, but I don’t like to do it. I’ve got 36 active subscribers, and they demand a lot of my time.
I imagine it’s nice to have a steady income rather than the ups and downs that can come with solo and small-firm life.
That’s a great thing! There are a lot of advantages for a firm to run things like this, and cash flow is at the top of the list. I know how much I am going to make now months in advance. When I was working hourly, I’d have a good month, and then I’d have a slow month. Administratively, I’d have an infinite number of retainers, each with different variables. This way, I have only three retainer agreements: two, four or six hours per month. You tell me which one you want, and I pull it off the shelf and fill in the name. You can sign it with your finger on your phone. I establish a curriculum at the beginning of the relationship with the risks I see and what I am going to do to address it.
That way, you have more time to enjoy living in the Hudson Valley, which is like a foodie paradise.
We do have good food here. We actually picked this place for food and quality of life. My kids go to school across from a cornfield, but we’re only an Amtrak ride away from the museums and concert halls of New York City. And it’s also top five nationally for mushroom foraging!
Which is your hobby, right? How did you get into that?
It’s just fun. The first time I ate a wild foraged mushroom, I thought I would burst into flames. I thought it was this deadly, risky thing. It turns out that it’s easy to identify the species, and there’s almost no risk involved in eating them. If you know what you’re doing, you can have a good time in the woods and come home and have a good time in the kitchen. I like going into the woods, and I like eating. I like going for a walk and finding food. It’s combining two great things—like food and practicing law.
Have you ever thought about marketing your subscription law program or doing some sort of consulting?
I have. I’d eventually like to offer consulting services to other attorneys because this has revolutionized my practice and completely changed my life. And I don’t talk like that normally. But as professionals, we need to rethink the hourly system. You couldn’t do this for bankruptcy or criminal, but you could do it for real estate or construction law. There is no better way to make yourself commercially attractive than by becoming predictable, becoming a line item in someone’s business. I didn’t add more skills to my skill set to do this—I am providing the same services as an hourly guy, but I am making five times more as a subscription guy. I just repackaged what I was doing to become more accommodating, and here I am.
This article was published in the July-August 2019 ABA Journal magazine with the title "Food, Service, Industry."