Unwonk - Episode 13: Worldwide Pants
We learn how not to get taken to the cleaners when you go to the cleaners, and we talk to international law attorney and person of intrigue Sean Lees about how he got into his career of making a global impact (and most definitely by not being a spy).
Many thanks to our guest, international attorney making the world a better place to live, Sean Lees.
Please enjoy the links to additional information relating to the questions on this episode - for people new to Unwonk, these quotes and links may not make much sense until you actually listen to the episode:
"Even though Article IV of the Constitution says that treaties are the ‘supreme law of the land,’ in most instances they’re not even law." - Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
"Of all the places that you go all the time, the dry-cleaning relationship is one of the most bizarre. Because you keep giving each other the same thing, back and forth, over and over again." - Jerry Seinfeld
- We weren't kidding about the detailed notice requirements for selling dry cleaning in Ohio.
- This should save you some time next year.
[Episode Keywords: Fancy pants, unclean pants, dry cleaned pants, abandoned pants, not spies, international law, how to make international policy for $5 or less a day]
UNWONK PODCAST - EPISODE 13: WORLDWIDE PANTS
Hi, friend. This is a rough transcript of this episode of Unwonk. What's that mean? It means that we're just pasting the original script for the show plus unvetted transcripts of any interviews. So, you're likely to see content that maybe didn't make the final cut, maybe not see some content that was in the episode but not the original script, and run across a few typos.
As with everything on Unwonk, the transcript below is for general informational purposes only - this is not legal advice - if you need to have a legal question answered, please seek legit legal representation.
On this episode of Unwonk, we learn
- How not to get taken to the cleaners when you go to the cleaners,
- What holiday parties you shouldn’t lie about attending,
- And, we talk to international person who does law, Sean Lees.
This is Unwonk. We respond to your legal questions with relevant and useful information.
If you would like to submit a question, please visit our site at Unwonk.com.
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You can also check out our ask a lawyer column in deadspin by clicking on the banner at our site or going to Unwonk.com/deadspin.
Even though the general information on this podcast is provided by actual attorneys, you’d be an idiot to think it is actual legal advice, and you’d also be the type of person who is the reason that companies actually have to write detailed guidelines on what is and isn’t appropriate for casual work attire. I mean, come on.
And now, our first question.
I’m thinking about going to law school and heading into the field of international law. I heard that working overseas can be really awesome - travel, exotic places, making a difference in the world. Now, please tell me how off-base this is.
Ever since we started this show, people have sent in a lot of questions on whether to go to law school. I’m going to leave the general topic of whether to go to law school at all for another day - that’s a whole other thing.
Today, let’s talk about a cosmopolitan career in international law.
First, there isn’t really a pure field international law, practically speaking.
I remember a lot of classmates in law school abuzz with the excitement of going into international law, and it all just seemed kind of vague.
Kind of like how everyone in college was majoring in poli sci. What the hell was that?
Saying you’re looking to go into the FIELD of international law is kind of like a chef declaring she’s going into the profession of heating things up but not cutting or chopping things. Kind of like a musician deciding he’s exclusively going perform in a concert hall but not play music (John Cage excluded, of course).
This is because the field of international law is - 99% of the time - just a component of other practice areas. There’s not a big fluffy cloud of law out there there just floating around that’s pure cumulus puff unadultered i nternational law. It’s nearly always going to be a feature of some other practical application. And if it is 100% international law, then it’s not really law, it’s politics.
And this is especially true of business law.
If you’re a relatively successful business, congratulations, you’re most likely going to be dealing with other countries. In business law, there are lawyers who regularly help their clients do things in other countries and are familiar with local laws on either side. A lot of the time, the importance of cross-jurisdictional work comes in on a cultural rather than technical legal level.
When I was a junior attorney, one of our clients did a lot of work in Korea. I was assigned to one of these deals, along with a senior attorney, probably in his 50s. The senior attorney HATED working on Korea deals because it meant we’d have to stay super late in order to have a conference call, and to him, super-late meant anything past 6 pm. There was younger partner on these Korea deals and he LOVED them because it meant that in order to stay for the call, we’d be forced to eat - and expense - dinner at one of the expensive steakhouses close to the office. I HATED these deals because (a) they were boring and (b) I had to sit through dinner with the older cranky attorney and the younger expense-happy attorney, the latter of whom used to also slowly count out the cash in his money clip while we were on calls while staring at everyone else with his cold dead eyes.
One night, when it was just the older guy and me, before dialing in, he expressed how much he didn’t want to be on this call and had an idea, presumably to end the call early so he could hop on the train and get back to his John Cheever life. We dialed in and the client and some local counsel in Seoul are on the line. They are followed by the counterparty based in Seoul, and then the counterparty’s counsel. As soon as we joined the call the partner said, “Hey, folks. Dialing in from New York here. Just wanted to start off by letting you know it’s a holiday here in the US, and we’re going to have to drop off a little early to attend a couple of holiday engagements.”
He winked at me and - as if that wasn’t enough - gave a thumbs up. Behind his shoulder, I could see my mortified expression in the window.
My expression was mortified not because the holiday he was referring to was the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. That was factually correct. AND, It’s not because the partner was an old white guy with a nice well-appointed house up the Hudson River. Even then, someone in Seoul, Korea would probably think, oh, OK, it’s a holiday and Martin Luther King Jr. was a pretty important guy.
It’s because that final group that joined the call - five lawyers from the law firm for the counterparty - they dialed in from the building across the street where we were sitting at that moment. In New York, United States of America, where everyone knows damn well that an old white man with a pimped out house up the Hudson river isn’t itching to run off to a Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday party at 10:30 pm on a weekday.
My mortified expression lasted just slightly longer than the awkward pause that followed, ended by one of the lawyers in the building across the street from us. So, we lost some cred. And the older lawyer who mis-played the holiday card still had no clue.
There’s that. And a lot of associates enjoyed going to Korea for these deals, mostly for the first class cabin tickets that included a cocoon that pulled over each seat, providing 14 hours of quiet solitude and free premium booze. I didn’t volunteer for these due to the week of brutal 16 hour work days after deplaning in Korea, fighting against jet lag the whole time - but given that those first class seats were slightly larger than the average New York apartment, it was probably worth it.
There are people who specialize in international aspects of everything - tax, banking, telco. You could even get away with saying “I’m an international [insert specialty here] lawyer, but it would be more about the specialty, and not the international bit.” I know a gaming lawyer - that’s gambling gaming not video gaming - that specializes in gaming laws in gambling friendly nations. But at heart, he’s still all about gambling - just so happens that the gambling game is one of jurisdictional hopscotch.
But aren’t there treaties, international courts, and other global agencies? Sure. There’s the International Criminal Court. Know how many indictments have been given by the ICC? 38. Know how many convictions? 1. Also, the US isn’t formally part of the ICC - 123 countries are - but we’re currently cooperating with the ICC.
If you take a step back. Laws are pretend. They are made up. We make them up. And the source for international law is an interweaving of “agreements” between nations. We’ll call those treaties and similar things. And - depending on the nation and its leaders - these treaties can be ignored or enforced or not enforced. But once you get into the treaty realm, you’ve moved mostly over to politics and/or global policymaking.
Speaking of policy making and moving into the sphere of something like the United Nations in the world non-governmental organizations I have someone to talk to about that, joining us from Rome, Italy, Sean Lees. Sean thanks for talking with us today.
Sean: Thank you.
Unwonk: First order of business Sean over the past decade you and your wife have lived or done extensive work in Thailand, Darfur and the Sudan, Afghanistan, Fiji, and you’re currently living in Rome, Italy. Between these international destinations you’ve had a home base in New York City. Sean… and your secret is safe with me. Are you and your wife spies?
Sean: No, no I kinda wish we were in market for spying is taken a dice since the global financial crisis we just can’t [inaudible] in this.
Unwonk: Right, I imagine living in those warm places must have made really hard coming from the cold. What do you actually do for a living Sean?
Sean: Right now I’m sitting an office across from the Vatican and I’m actually standing into the windows over wall at the back of the museums. I’m based in Rome. I work at the headquarters of an inter-governmental organization called the International Law Organization and we [inaudible] our resources financial and human and otherwise to building institutions and empowering people to enjoy stronger levels of law in their countries. We’re working maybe thirty-five to forty different countries some of which are post conflict settings or most conflict countries some of which are in transition from autocrat regimes to democracies and [inaudible] are considered [inaudible] counties like Mexico or Brazil or what have you. We’re working in these countries with the permission of governments to strengthen its judiciaries, strengthen up police forces, strengthen the correctional facilities while provide level of justice thinking.
Unwonk: So that’s really, truly broad based international policy.
Sean: It has broad based international policy dimensions because of the sort of sensitive nature of justice as a solving issue for countries and also because [inaudible] law impacts across borders while the rule law is absent in one nation. It usually leads to social instability and of course that will have impact on its neighbors which may in fact going do or lead to conflict. You’ve seen that in Sudan, you’ve seen that in Afghanistan and places like that but it’s also potential in other places in Central America for example. Even in some parts of Asia. So it’s a conflict prevention measure, it’s a peace security issue. There’s also an economic and social justice item for global actors at the UN and elsewhere to think about and to invest there.
Unwonk: Looking at where you are now with your career, what kind of special training did you have or what kind of experience? And did it include the place called “The Farm” in Virginia?
Sean: Oh The Farm, The Farm, look in fact… I was a lawyer for five years I got tired of it. I wanted to live abroad, I wanted to travel abroad. One of those… one or two things on my own. I just… I moved to Thailand with my then girlfriend and now my wife who have a job working in a refugee camp and working with women. When I was there they opened up [inaudible] of law program to provide for certain justice system mechanisms within these refugee camps sort of like city states they have their own markets, they have their own health facilities, they also don’t have their own courts though in place of providing justice as a service. So international community at that time was getting… was interested in developing a justice system every week at least international standards of justice making. I just have in the right place at the right time. This feel is actually grown since then. And I’ve started from you know, as you mentioned from refugee camps in Thailand to some [inaudible] camps just base camps in Darfur, to Afghanistan, of course these other places doing that type of work from different types of perspectives.
Unwonk: Is working internationally as a lawyer on the humanitarian policy side the most efficient way to kind of get in to this lifestyle to you know, this person wants to and love to travel, exotic places and make a difference. Should this person even go to law school in the first place in order to do that?
Sean: Yes as I answer your question I realized I didn’t answer your last question. You know I have been trained as a lawyer. Was it important for me to learn how to program in the field? We give a certain amount of credibility to the work you deal with especially if it involves lawyers. So going to law school having actually been a lawyer helped me talk to lawyers in other countries about lawyering. It gave me the credibility when I was putting together training manuals and what have you, it gave me confidence. Frankly when I started put it together as I moved on in my career I realized start putting policy together, the ability to write logically helped me. But frankly if I’d be able to do it again I might pursue a different path, I might not focus necessarily on a law degree. It is not required to the kind of work that I do to have a law degree. It is though extremely helpful if you do.
Unwonk: Alright and you said you could actually look into Vatican right now.
Sean: I’m on the fourth floor of the building across the street from Vatican museum and yeah I can see… I could see into the museum which is a public building.
Unwonk: Alright because I know the pope is in the US right now so maybe security is a little less over there now so do you have any plans to maybe check things out a little more closely?
Sean: We infiltrated… oops we visited last weekend.
Unwonk: You’ve lived in a lot of places so which of the places that you’ve lived internationally has been the most rewarding or your favorite place?
Sean: It’s like comparing apples and oranges and grapes and walnuts. There’s just no comparison. I think you know, I mean having compare the top one like Fiji which is going through is gonna be amazing democratic like rather is going through this amazing transformation in its govern systems with [inaudible] of course part of Europe and of course Europe is also part of this great transformation.
Unwonk: What if you based it on the quality of its espresso bars?
Sean: Definitely not Sudan.
Unwonk: Alright, well I’m glad it can help you narrow that down. Sean thanks, thanks for joining us, thanks for helping me clarify the issue for this person.
Sean: Take care.
And there you have it, Jess. Or not. Complicated issue. Clearly, going to law school is one path to an international life, but there are a lot of other factors involved. If you’re going into the policy world, you can try to follow Sean’s path. If you’re thinking about business law, there are definite upsides if you’re into business, but I hope you look forward waiting around hours and hours after everyone has gone home, enduring rather than enjoying your dinners, and, of course, the benefits of jet lag without ever having to leave town.
Kind of freaking out right now. Four months ago, I moved apartments. Right before the move, I dropped off a bunch of my clothes at the dry cleaners - some suits, nice pants, winter jackets and stuff like that way, I wouldn’t have to move as much stuff on moving day, and I’d have all my clothes clean and pressed after I moved in. Well, the summer went by - had a road trip, a couple weekend vacations, and then burning man. Then I got a new job, which starts next week, and suddenly realized that all of my suits and nice pants are at the cleaners. I get to the cleaners and they say that they sold my clothes because I failed to pick them up. Can they do that? Wouldn’t they have to contact me? I’m totally screwed for starting my new job next week. (Ohio)
Todd, the first piece of advice I can give you here is: Don’t write to a podcast for time-sensitive legal information. That’s just stupid. Really. That said, you’re in Ohio. And Ohio has shockingly detailed laws about - i’m not kidding - about unclaimed formerly dirty laundry.
Now. Let’s talk about what happens when you drop off a nice pair of pants at your local dry cleaner.
Obviously, the first step, is to open the door and enjoy the jangling of the tiny bell hanging from the door handle, or the more synthetic sound of an electronic chime from somewhere in the back. Different strokes, really.
You’re already running late for work, so this shouldn’t take that long. But, as soon as you enter, a harried woman with two bags and a heaping armful of garments appears out of nowhere and dumps it all on the counter, taking her sweet damn time separating the laundry items from the dry cleaning items and a giant beige comforter with some questionable stains, hopefully chocolate or vegemite. [before i get emails about it, i said “harried woman, not hairy woman,” though it could work either way]
After numerous polite coughs escape from your passive-aggressive face, the laundry dumper gets her receipt and rushes off, presumably to pay for something with small change at the head of a long line somewhere.
You hand the dry cleaner your pants and commence the obligatory timeline negotiation. “Next Thursday OK,” she says, not blinking. In this story, it’s Monday. You respond with “Hmm. Since your plant is on premises, I was hoping for something same week.” “We’re very busy,” she says. “But your sign says “SAME DAY”. That’s for laundry, she says. Well, how about this Wednesday? I really need to wear these nice pants. She bows her head - not out of deference or agreement, but because she’s taking a deep breath and searching within to build up the necessary force to shoot down your insane two-day request. “FRIDAY.” she fist crashing down, nearly splitting the white veneer countertop. You pause and think of all the other dry cleaners in the area, and how each one is going to crush your dreams of clean pants quickly in the exact same way. Ok, you say. Friday. Knowing damn well you intend to pick them up no later than next Thursday or even later.
One of two things happen: She slides over a pad of paper for your to write your name and phone number on, or she asks for your phone number and enters it into a computer, which then pulls up your record. After confirming the inventory, you pre-pay (no, not with America Express, thanks) and take your receipt. And if you’ve got a real good dry cleaner, you grab a hard candy from a little bowl on the way out. Not because you like hard candy, but because your dry cleaner overcharges, and this is your way of getting back.
Now, back to your fancy pants.
Under Ohio law, a dry cleaner can sell clothes that it has cleaned and are unclaimed for 120 days. That’s about four months. It can sell those clothes to recoup the cost of cleaning.
This, Todd, is where it gets complicated. The dry cleaner has to send you a notice by certified mail that it is going to sell your nice pants. If it doesn’t have your address - which we’re going to assume it doesn’t - the dry cleaner has to take out an ad in the newspaper to alert you when and where your pants will be sold. And it has to do it on 30 days notice. The earliest a dry cleaner can give notice of sale is 90 days into the 120 day forfeiture period, salivating with anticipation that you won’t pick up your pants by the 120th day and then, bam, sold to the highest bidder.
But, here’s the good part, Todd. The dry cleaner can only deduct from the proceeds of the sale of your pants - of which I imagine there’s a lot - only the amount of your dry cleaning bill. If the dry cleaner doesn’t have your address, it then has to hold on to the remainder of your pants proceeds for A YEAR and turn it over when you come rolling in to claim it.
So if your dry cleaner gave proper notice and had that legall required sign posted that basically says it can sell your stuff, you can go claim the proceeds of your pants auction minus the dry cleaning that you’ve essentially paid for for someone else to wear your pants. If not, they’ve broken the law and you can take them to small claims court.
If they haven’t had any missteps, a dry cleaner is given statutory immunity on the sale of your pants. Think about that. Your local dry cleaner has one more legal immunity than you ever will, but not as much as the bad guy in Lethal Weapon 2.
On a related note, Todd, grow up, stop being such a man-child, and learn how to use a calendar and to-do list like the rest of us instead spending the summer thinking of your playa name. I mean, if you have nice pants, you must have been doing something right at some point.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unwonk. And thank you again to international attorney, policy maker, traveler, and most definitely not spy, Sean Lees.
Please visit our site at Unwonk.com to ask your questions, and for lots of bonus material about the topics on today’s episode. You can also find us on twitter, and facebook - and you can also - totally your choice - tell everyone you know to listen and subscribe.
And don’t forget check out our deadspin column, updating every couple-ish weeks.
On the next episode, we learn:
- Why the republican presidential debates have been leaving one podium empty for elijah;
- The crazy loophole in nevada law that allows legalized uranium enrichment on casino grounds; and
- The secret language of groundhogs.
And now, here’s me practicing stupid spy questions that didn’t make today’s interview:
- So when you’re travelling, does the tsa make you remove your shoes that have poison-tipped daggers coming out of the toes, or can you keep those on for if you’re cleared for pre-check?
- In a restaurant parking lot after a business dinner, how can you tell which unmarked black helicopter is yours?
- Which app do you use to monitor phone calls and emails under the patriot act, and is it available in the itunes store?
- Do you ever open your secret floor safe, sift through your collection of fake passports and currency for various countries and wistfully think of just blowing your cover and running away?
- When you’re meeting your handler in a dark parking garage after midnight to hand off an assignment, does it bother you know you could have just send it from an aol address just as anonymously and from the comfort of your own couch while you’re binge watching veronica mars?