When Avon Calls

The new face of cosmetics law
By Marci Alboher, New York Lawyer, Summer 2001

When Donna Edbril joined Avon’s legal department, she made the move from law firm litigator to in-house counsel largely to balance career and family. Thirteen years later, as vice president, U.S. Legal, she says it’s the best decision she ever made. As one who is determined to have it all, Edbril still doesn’t see how it’s possible to achieve the sense of balance she finds as in-house counsel in law firm life. She can’t help looking at the young lawyers she meets as outside counsel and wondering, “Do you really understand what you’re in for?”

That’s not to say it’s all been a party. During her tenure at Avon, she says, “the whole nature of the role of in-house counsel has changed. Lawyers here are really seen as part of the decision-making process.” For Edbril, who has a strong interest in business, she prides herself on the fact that she’s been able to be “quite close to the action.” That means making tough decisions and going out on a limb. “You need to know how to lawyer inside,” she explains, “and you can’t be afraid of being wrong. Sometimes we’re called upon to give an opinion in a very short amount of time.”

As the head of Avon’s U.S. legal department (there’s also an international group and a general counsel to whom she and the head of international report), she leads a team of five lawyers, each of whom brings different areas of expertise to the department. Together they address all the issues that affect Avon’s domestic business. Like a mini law firm, they handle matters as diverse as employment, trademark, marketing and advertising, litigation, Internet, and contracts.

One significant area of the law Edbril became familiar with at Avon is the regulatory framework of the FDA as it applies to cosmetics. “While the FDA has regulations governing the claims that can be made for cosmetics, those words alone don’t offer much guidance,” she says. “In today’s sophisticated marketplace, an ultra-conservative reading of those regulations would result in not much more than a simple moisturizer being available. Take the example of alpha hydroxy, which Avon was the first to bring to the mass market, but which is now commonly available from all the major cosmetics companies.”

While always mindful of the regulatory requirements, Edbril says she has to maximize how far the company can go with a product claim, especially in light of the technological advancements that have been made in skin care. “That’s why it’s so important to have the right people in the department ó people who are comfortable taking risks but also people who are reading magazines, looking at ads, and going to stores to see what the competition is doing.”

Advertising has also become increasingly important for Avon. Historically Avon’s products have been sold only through the company’s brochure. In recent years, the company has launched major print and television campaigns as part of its effort to improve its image. This required a whole new area of expertise ó and in fact, the most recent hire on Edbril’s team is a lawyer with an advertising and marketing background.

The relationship between the company and its sales representatives is another key issue for Avon’s lawyers. Since its direct sales force is, as Edbril puts it, “the heart and soul” of Avon’s core business model, the challenge has been to continue to attract Avon representatives and incentivize them without blurring the distinction between independent contractors and employees.

Edbril’s job at Avon has changed several times. With eight years of litigation experience, first at Martin Clearwater & Bell and then at Curtis Mallet-Provost Colt & Mosie, she joined Avon as senior counsel with responsibility for several large litigations that were pending at the time. A few years later, when there was a need for a lawyer with employment skills, she retrained and, in short order, took on responsibility for the company’s human resources issues. As time went on, she has become even more of a generalist, gaining exposure and experience in just about every specialty that touches upon Avon’s business. Today she spends a lot of time as a sounding board for the lawyers in her group and brainstorming as they bring issues to her.

Success in-house, for Edbril, has had a lot to do with finding a company whose corporate culture fit her personality. For those seeking to break-in, she suggests using interviews to explore such issues as how lawyers are perceived by the business people and how lawyers get involved in the decision-making process. From the start, she felt Avon had a culture of openness that allowed her to try different things and take on additional areas of responsibility.

It also helps that she identifies with Avon’s corporate mission. As a company run by a woman who is the mother of two, Avon sends a message that is consistent with its business model of successful sales representatives (who have traditionally been women) selling beauty products, and “that it is possible to be a successful, glamorous and smart woman all at the same time and to have integrity and a conscience as well.”

Edbril sees exciting times ahead for Avon and is thrilled to be a part of the company’s new direction. “When I started, Avon was the largest direct selling company in the world; today Avon is that and much more. We’ve introduced a separate health and wellness business, introducing vitamins and nutritional supplements to the market. And we’re developing a new branded product line for retail that will be sold at JC Penney’s and Sears. In each of these new business initiatives, I was a key member of the business team negotiating the deal.”

When Edbril hires someone for her department, she’s looking for more than just a good lawyer. What’s really important to her is finding people who “can be flexible, have business smarts, are not afraid of taking risks, and can multitask. It’s quite different from life at a law firm where some litigators spend all of their time on one or a few cases. That would never happen here ó people have to be very good with transitions.” She adds, “You can’t just see yourself as a lawyer. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the business people and be able to evaluate risks ó not just the legal risks but also loss of the company’s customer good will and reputation.” She thinks this has to be part of who you are and the way you feel comfortable lawyering. “Some people could never make that transition,” she adds. “That’s why they stay at law firms.”

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