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Rend Al-Mondhiry supplements lawyer

8 things I learned from 8 years as a dietary supplement trade association attorney

Building a career in the food or supplements industry? Take to heart this advice from an attorney who's worked with companies and those who regulate them.

While attorneys often leave law firms for in-house legal positions at companies or trade associations, going “the other” way is unusual. But that is what I recently did.

As counsel for two of the leading dietary supplement trade associations, the past eight years gave me a rare opportunity to be on the front lines of an industry that’s always growing, always changing and always interesting. Working directly with industry members and the people who regulate them, I learned how to effectively work with both to meet their objectives, as well as what they value in an adviser and how to keep individual businesses and the industry as a whole moving forward.

Reflecting on these past eight years, here are just a few things that I learned (in no particular order) that I hope may be helpful not only to aspiring association attorneys but also to anyone developing a career in the industry.

Maintaining relationships is as important as building new ones. Like law firms seeking new clients, trade associations are keenly focused on gaining new members. However, being responsive and attentive to current members is the only way to sustain growth. Member companies (and law firm clients!) will keep coming back if they feel appreciated, respected and, more importantly, that you value their investment.  

Success demands flexibility and the ability to effectively prioritize. Serving as counsel for a trade association meant responding to oftentimes competing requests from the members in addition to all of my everyday responsibilities. Meeting the needs of so many companies and individuals, each with very different personalities, isn’t always easy, but it trains you to be flexible, adaptable and efficient. And needless to say, the ability to prioritize multiple demands is a critical skill when juggling multiple clients and multiple projects.

Trade associations are essential resources and voices for the industry. Trade associations not only serve as resources for information, but they play an increasingly crucial role as the “face” of the industry. My colleagues and I were the eyes and ears for the members, spotting potential issues as far in advance as possible so that members could be as prepared as possible for changes. Further, using speaking, comment writing, advocacy and consensus building skills, the associations are the recognized faces of the industry before the regulatory agencies.

Take self-regulation seriously, and stay engaged. Trade associations lead the way when it comes to developing voluntary guidelines and programs for “policing” their industries. Of course, companies may not realize the extent to which these self-regulatory initiatives impact their day-to-day operations or class action and other risks. In-house and outside counsel can provide this important information and help ensure that an association’s good intentions result in a positive step forward for the industry, rather than a liability.   

Listen more than you speak. Lawyers love to talk, especially about themselves and their work. But building consensus among a diverse group of stakeholders–or counseling an individual company–requires active listening and tailoring responses accordingly. Over the years, I’ve learned how important it is to truly understand the conversation rather than simply show up with a list of talking points.

Expect and embrace new challenges every day. On any given day, I couldn’t guess what would be waiting for me in my email inbox or on the other end of the phone line. Or in the case of the New York AG’s investigation into herbal supplements, on the front page of The New York Times. One day I’m knee-deep into the limitations of DNA barcoding, the next I’m researching the requirements for a Section 337 investigation or drafting an advertising challenge before the National Advertising Division. Embrace the challenges and grow with them!

Dietary supplements are here to stay. Despite the seemingly constant stream of negative media attention and the growing number of class actions targeting dietary supplements, the industry continues to grow and innovate. Also, the number of consumers using dietary supplements increases each year. Traditional products like multivitamins still dominate, but the market for botanicals and probiotics, and concepts like personalized nutrition, have gained a steady and growing following. Functional and medical foods are also taking off, and there’s an increased need for expertise and guidance in this not-so-well-defined product category.

Have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously. As a lawyer, there’s a lot to love about the dietary supplement industry, and the food industry more generally. The products are always in demand, the laws leave ample room for creative interpretation and the people are true innovators. But what I most appreciate is the industry’s passion for the products they market. These companies want counsel that’s equally engaged and focused; at the same time, most clients appreciate an attorney who can take a break from being a consummate professional long enough to crack a joke.

I’m truly grateful to be a part of this industry–and grateful that I’ll continue serving it, and the trade associations, in my new role.

Rend Al-Mondhiry is senior counsel at the law firm Amin Talati Upadhye LLP in Washington, DC. Prior to that she served as associate general counsel of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, and as state legislative counsel for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

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