clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How I Got My Job: Becoming a Restaurant Lawyer

Jasmine Moy went from server to miserable law firm associate to one of the go-to lawyers in the restaurant world

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Jasmine Moy.

There’s enough to worry about when you’re building a restaurant or food business, let alone navigating its legalities. Instead of tackling it on their own, many chefs and restaurateurs turn to Jasmine Moy to untangle it all. Moy is a business attorney who specializes in the hospitality industry, meaning she knows the ins and outs of funding start-ups, forming a business, negotiating for real estate, and more. She’s worked with the likes of Kwame Onwuachi, Kristen Kish, and Andrea Reusing ― and she’s offered smart insight on Eater on subjects from tip pooling to getting a good cookbook deal.

But while Moy has become one of the biggest names in her field, it took her awhile to discover that this perfect marriage of her interests ― hospitality law ― even existed. In the following Q&A, Moy explains how she went from a “miserable” corporate lawyer saddled with debt to running her own practice that allows her to spend time with her favorite people in the world: those in the service industry.

Eater: What does your job involve?

Jasmine Moy: Mostly drafting and negotiating all the contracts you need to start, run, and grow a successful hospitality company, with some business advising and hospitality consulting tossed in for good measure.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

I mostly went to law school because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and thought it would be smart to buy myself a few more years to decide. The thing about law school is that the debt it often puts you in quite limits the type of work you can afford to take afterward.

Student loans are such a part of the conversation around higher education right now. Has your career trajectory been impacted by debt in any way?

Oh God, yes, 100 percent. I had to take corporate jobs at a series of big firms in litigation just because that’s what was available, and I think my initial loan repayment amounts were like $1,700 a month. That’s a second rent for someone in their early 20s. So I took these jobs I didn’t want, doing work I hated doing, working 100 hours a week, losing my friends and social life, and did that for about eight years until I thought I might have a mental breakdown when I turned 30.

What was your first job? What did it involve?

My very first job was as a hostess at a suburban California Pizza Kitchen (where I also was a food runner and then a server when I was old enough to serve wine), and honestly, it’s where I fell in love with restaurants and the camaraderie and work ethic of the hospitality industry. I continued to wait tables all through college (at various Lettuce Entertain You restaurants in Chicago) and law school (at the Soho House in New York). There are literally two kinds of people in the world ― those who have worked in the service industry and those who haven’t ― and I really only ever want to hang with the former.

How did you get involved with restaurant industry law?

I was miserable practicing corporate litigation, had dreams of quitting my job and traveling the world, and so signed up for a travel writing class at New York University taught by David Farley. Farley taught me how to pitch stories, but the only things I knew anything about were food trends and chefs because I was eating out so often. So I started pitching stories and writing about food for the Wall Street Journal Off Duty section,’s food vertical, and Time Out New York, and doing some advertorial work for print magazines. I was interviewing a lot of chefs and eventually one of them suggested that I should be a lawyer for chefs. It turns out that’s an actual job I had no idea existed.

So I started looking for local attorneys who were practicing law in the restaurant space. I interviewed with one small prominent restaurant law firm in the city that said they’d hire me if I sent them clients. So I sent them clients, and then they (I wish I were kidding, but this is not a joke) said they didn’t have a job to offer me, but they wanted me to write company newsletters for them as a marketing intern. After I “HARD PASS”-ed those bros, I was introduced to Tom Colicchio’s first cousin who was representing a lot of chefs at the time. He luckily had just had an employee quit and needed an extra hand. I’ll always be thankful that he had the patience to take in someone without relevant experience ― it was definitely the break I needed. I worked with him for a few years before going out on my own, and now I run my own practice.

What’s been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in that field?

Honestly, going out on my own was really scary. It meant not knowing how many clients would come with me or whether I was going to be able to find enough clients to keep my bills paid. It meant finding the confidence that I could do the best work for my people without having the safety net of more experienced attorneys around me when I needed it. Thankfully, I was living in an incredibly affordable, rent-stabilized fifth floor walk-up in Washington Heights and had gotten my loans down to a more reasonable $900 per month so I didn’t need much income to support myself and was able to manage it all without being too uncomfortable.

When was the first time you felt successful?

I was quoted in the New York Times once for a story and, while it may not seem like much, it was exceptionally legitimizing at a time when I needed it. It’s also really nice when a notable chef I’ve never met hunts me down to say they’ve heard I do good work and hires me.

Did you have any setbacks? What were they?

I’m a pretty typical Virgo. I plan ahead and am risk averse, so I fortunately haven’t had any major blows. (Yet!) But I get emotionally invested in my clients so it always feels like a setback to not get certain things I want in deal-making, or when a client’s restaurant isn’t doing as well as they’d hoped, or a Department of Health inspection doesn’t go well, or a treasured space falls through ― even if this is all part of the regular course of business.

Jasmine Moy speaks on a panel.
Jasmine Moy, center, speaks on a panel.
Limone Creative

What were the most important skills that got you where you are now?

I like people, and I think (hope!) people generally like me in return. That goes a long way in finding clients, earning a client’s trust, and working successfully and communicating amicably with opposing counsel. I’m not sure this is a skill, per se, but because the work I do is in such a niche field, I have a particularly good sense of what market rates are for hospitality contracts (for chefs or food and beverage companies or restaurant groups), and that empowers me to ask for things for my clients and to feel justified that my asks are reasonable ones. So it makes me a superior negotiator to someone who isn’t primarily working in this field.

Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?

I have a dear friend, Richard, who is an attorney (he’s older and has been a partner at firms and argued in front of the Supreme Court) and so he’s always offered priceless and grounding guidance as to how to get out of the job I hated, how to get paid better at the job I took next, and how to function as a solo legal practitioner.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

The first time I got a client a very significant increase in pay on a consulting contract. I made $75,000 appear overnight for this woman where it previously had not existed, and I was like, “This is why I do this job!” It just feels so good. Probably not as good as having an extra $75,000 feels, but I’ll take what I can get.

What would surprise people, or what is something you didn’t know going into your job?

I never cease to be surprised that I can make a nice living off of doing such a limited range of work, but I think generally people might be surprised to learn about how much of my time is spent trying to convince people of their own worth ― being a life counselor as much as I’m a business counselor. Business partners need to have really hard conversations about life, death, disagreements, etcetera, when they start new ventures, and it’s my job to facilitate those difficult conversations. Attorneys are meant to be trusted advisers, but I sometimes find myself in the seat of a therapist, especially when partnerships or businesses are going awry.

What’s one of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do?

Generally, I love industry gossip, so it’s fun to know about certain exciting projects/deals for months and months before they are announced to the general public. I once got invited to one of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s food salon parties. I was by miles the least famous person in that room which was equal parts thrilling and embarrassing! Getting to chat with David Byrne and Wyatt Cenac and to also meet industry folks like Edouardo Jordan was a perfect night for me and I’ll treasure it. Lastly, knowing enough people to get last-minute reservations at places like Red Hook Tavern or whatever are decent perks as well, if I’m honest.

How are you making change in your industry?

I’m actively searching out underrepresented folks (of all kinds ― race, gender, sexual orientation) and recommending them to hotel clients and developers for projects for which they’d be a great fit. It’s mostly still white men making the final choices at the end of the day, but I’m trying to get a more diverse group of talent into these gigs since I’m now finally :insert musical notes emoji: in the room where it happens.

What would you have done differently in your career?

I obviously wish I’d figured out sooner that there was a career for me that married my law degree to my actual interests. It would have saved me so much anguish in my late 20s!

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want ― the worst that can happen is that they say no.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

Provided they’ve learned the foundations of corporate legal practice (which they could do at any firm that was appropriately supporting their attorneys), the best way to thrive in the legal industry (whether with a firm or solo practice) is to always have work. The way to always have work is to be generous with your time and your favors, earn as much goodwill as you can, make friends in the industry you’d like to represent (though it honestly helps to be someone who will make friends anywhere ― you never know who will know your next client), and do good work. Referrals will follow!

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy of Jasmine Moy.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.