Friday, March 30, 2018

Friday Link List: No frills. No bows. No bullshit(?)

The Wing, via Curbed

Things are officially quite hectic at the office, but I'm really excited to be fully integrated with a few big ongoing projects. Full speed ahead, and I learn more and develop more as an attorney when I'm busy!

One small detail about workflow in litigation, more than in some other practices, is that many high-profile or complex cases (or heck, many litigated cases in general) tend to last years and years. For instance, up to this day (and with no realistic end in sight, whether months or years from now) tons of lawyers are still working on cases related to the recovery of assets from Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme, a process that began nine years ago. That's far longer than many people's stints at any particular law firm or other job throughout the course of a career! As someone who used to really enjoy that particular feeling of accomplishment that comes from finally closing the book entirely on a project so that I'll never see anything to do with it again, well, that's not something that comes along often, and I'll need to get used to that.

1. // Here's something fussy and nitpicky about how Everlane is marketing (affiliate link) their new line of women's underwear. Taglines include: "No frills. No bows. No bullshit." further explained by: "Underwear should be made for you. But for decades, it’s been designed with someone else in mind." I don't love this marketing, though it's not important enough for me to fuss much one way or the other. I'm largely content to shrug my shoulders and note that it's not a product I'm interested in. Those bras have absolutely no utility to me, but that's no surprise in the startups-making-bras context. They generally don't stock my size at all (Victoria's Secret also doesn't, so that's not even a huge deal) or if they do, I just don't trust them to do the job well enough to spend money on trying them out.

That being said, I have a question. Are Everlane's taglines for this new product line compelling to you? Does this marketing work? Personally, I'm entirely neutral on frills and bows and the like. 98% of the time, because the items are well designed and/or because of how my other clothes fit, what lace and bows that are present never cause any problem. I've never thought that the frills meant the items were "designed with someone else in mind." In fact, the items I wear are, er, specifically and definitely well-designed for my needs, mainly to hold certain things in place, to allow things like, say, high impact exercise, or even brisk walking around without discomfort. But I'm an outlier, so I'm so not the person to ask. 

2. // By now you've probably heard of a recent New York City Commission of Human Rights investigation of The Wing, a startup-y women's-only club and coworking space that was founded here in NYC and is constantly expanding, for possible violations of local public accommodations laws. Jezebel broke the story, and it's gone a bit viral.

Although the price point and general nature of The Wing means I'll likely never be a customer (the "all locations" membership is a year-long commitment of $2700 or ~$250/month, I know it's shocking, but at least keep in mind that an unlimited use WeWork membership also starts at $220/month and that's likely the competition they had in mind). At the moment, The Wing's main benefit over WeWork or other coworking space rentals is access to some pretty cool events, including, in recent weeks, one with Jennifer Lawrence (!), one at the Chanel couture showroom that they set up for NYC-based customers, and various other things, both big and small. A friend is a member and has been kind enough to invite me to a few things that allowed non-member guests, including a screening of this film with the director and a few actresses (Beanie Feldstein, of Lady Bird fame, is really cool!), and that's the only reason I know anything specific about The Wing. 

I don't know the laws at issue very well, so no real opining from me. Just because of other media I've recently consumed, my brain is primed to wonder if we're seeing another example of NYC city government entities engaging in inefficient use of their prosecutorial discretion, but well, that's a half-formed thought. 

3. // I  have a huge backlog of blog entries to read that I'll get to soon, when things ease up a bit at the office, but here are a few other things that I enjoyed reading about in recent days: A wedding post from Jess; a few thoughts about transparency and personal finance blogging at YAPFB (I rambled a lot there, possibly too much); and a post from Feather Factor about having help, whether hired or from family members, once kids are in the picture. That last thing is a topic I may need to start thinking about sometime in the next few years, but that I will totally avoid for as long as I possibly can. I've thought about it enough to know that I don't see any way around needing tons of help if I follow through on the very likely plan of going back to work as soon as my maternity leave ends (by far the most commonly done thing among my attorney peers).

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

March 2018 Shopping Reflections

Towards the end of the month, things got quite busy at the office, enough that it drove the thought of those Soludos llama slip-on sneakers right out of my head. That particular impulse might recur, however, as warmer weather finally sets in. (And there are more spring and summer-feeling pink ones too, though they may not come back in stock until June.) As I mentioned in February, this month was almost certain to be shopping-heavy as well, because many of this month's orders were already pending. I'm really hoping to ease up on the shopping for the rest of the year, and I don't anticipate any big obstacles to that until fall. Although I'm eager for warm weather, I don't get excited about warm weather clothes, for the most part.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links that could result in a commission, typically a few cents, for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

I likely have a new "wish list" for spring and summer, mostly including one or two cotton tees that fit well and look good, and which I'm willing to spend on. I'm pretty fussy about how tees fit over my chest, a lot of them make me really feel the lyrics of a certain Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song. I secretly want all my tops and dresses to have an optical illusion effect that deemphasizes my chest. Few tees are equal to that task though, as they're soft and unstructured. At the moment, I only own one cotton tee that I wear out of the house, an Everlane v-neck in black that's alright, but doesn't have the effect I'm looking for. It's also quite fitted on me, and I'd prefer something a little more relaxed. I think this goes slightly against common wisdom for busty people who want to deemphasize that feature, but a v-neck is not the best neckline for that goal on me. A scoop neck or round neck that doesn't go too high up and shows at least part of my collarbones, seems to be best, though I might need to try on quite a few styles to make sure.  

Fashion - (TOTAL: $333.74) 
  • C by Bloomingdales Cashmere Open Asymmetric Cardigan - $79.00 - This is sold out, as they discounted it heavily for the end of the season. I totally didn't need this, as I have plenty of wool and cashmere cardigans for winter, but I was sucked in by the sale price. I don't think this is actually asymmetric, it just has a rather exaggerated, voluminous waterfall effect in front. It feels cozy, so I've enjoyed wearing it and it'll get plenty of use. 
  • M.Gemi Felize, Gold Shimmer - $161.14 - I used someone's referral code for a $50 discount  on my first pair of M.Gemi shoes. These feel nice, a bit more refined in construction than the Everlane Modern Points or any given pair of Cole Haan shoes. Between the metallic shimmer finish and how these are my first pair of driving moccasins, with rubber stoppers instead of a traditional sole, I was nervous about the durability. They actually seem like they'll be fine, though, not worse than any other pair of ballet flats I've owned,  except that I'd be more cautious about exposure to rain. M. Gemi's business model, which relies on releasing limited-edition shoes, generally in fun colors, means that it couldn't ever be a brand I regularly look to for my footwear needs. 
  • J.Crew Factory Open-Front Sweater Blazer, heather charcoal - $46.80 - I wrote about this and other "pretend blazers" or "almost jackets" recently, things with a blazer look, but that are machine-washable and preferably a bit softer and less structured-feeling.  I liked this one much better than J.Crew Factory's other sweater blazer, which was awkwardly long on me. There is a very similar J.Crew design, in merino wool instead of cotton, and dry clean-only instead of  machine-washable. The J.Crew one may have bigger lapels and an intentionally oversized fit. 
  • J.Crew Factory Open-Front Sweater Blazer, heather oatmeal - $46.80 - I rarely get multiple colors of one item, but I have a use for both of these. Although I had plenty of winter cardigans, my collection of spring/summer ones (mostly cotton or linen from Ann Taylor or Loft) was getting very worn out and depleted. 

Is anyone else also far more into fall/winter clothes than spring/summer ones? Any recommendations for brands that do good tees? I think I'll be a bit absent as a blogger and regular reader and commenter elsewhere for a few weeks, as I've hit an unusually busy patch at the office, with two of my bigger projects serving up several important deadlines in a row, at the exact same time. I'm happy to be fully integrated into my projects at the new place, though! 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday Link List: Dress Codes and Other Things

K and I recently tried out Cote, a hip new Korean BBQ place that has been difficult to get a reservation at since they received a Michelin star. We booked four weekends ahead to get something that wasn't 11:00 PM or later!

The concept is part fancy steakhouse, with dry-aged beef cooked and served Korean BBQ-style. We enjoyed it, though we may prefer the experience of more traditional Korean BBQ instead (in Manhattan, I recommend Kang Ho Dong, though they don't take reservations and waits can be long). Pictured above is the "egg souffle", a steamed egg dish that comes free with the "Butcher's Feast" set menu. It's hardly the star of the show, but I'm very fond of steamed eggs, which are also a Chinese comfort food.

1. // I'll bet I'm preaching to the choir, but relatively few things simultaneously confuse and horrify me more than people who disrespect and completely dismiss the contributions of their stay at home partner, particularly after there are children. This is one of those things that I have, luckily, never encountered in real life, just in online spaces, but I've seen so many different flavors of it. I detest this behavior equally whether it is directed at a woman (discussion referenced here or the idea of "Jeff" here and anyone who defends him, though they may all be trolls) or a man (Corporette readers were being hyper-weird, and I was floored). I can't even begin to wrap my head around how people get into these mindsets. Anyone who seriously holds that view is being remarkably blind about some things. Granted, if the "Jeff" or Corporette situations are real, the actual problems are probably much deeper than whether the other partner has a job. 

2. // I don't always agree with everything Racked publishes about workplace dress codes, but they recently posted two interesting pieces. First was one about the complicated and sometimes arbitrary-seeming rules for Capitol Hill staffers. Second, and this made me very sad, there was a piece about the dramatically awful dress code double standards that face some women of color in conservative workplaces, when compared with what other women face (which is already not great). I really would hope that lawyers would know better

P.S. the author of the second piece also wrote something I've often wanted to share, but never manage to because I disagree so much with her ultimate thesis. Her description of the bits of snide competitiveness among her law school classmates during on-campus recruiting was so spot-on, except that it's a gender-neutral behavior. I've seen it so often, throughout all stages of law school, from men and women alike. 

3. // I totally just shared something from Bitches get Riches, but they posted something else I found awesome and important. Essentially, it's about the process of getting "woke", accepting and even embracing the rage one might rightly and reasonably feel about the injustice and indignities that one personally faces, which also realizing the importance of fighting for people who are even more vulnerable. It's very real to me, and describes something that is an uncomfortable process and long, winding road. (Pro bono work, generally of the most mundane "civil Gideon" kinds has been a big part of my life at every stage of my legal education and career except when it was not allowed, see Canon 4(D), as well as contributions to various pipeline initiatives, but it never feels like enough. There's more work to be done.)

Congratulations to Sophie on her first blogiversary! Like her, I also feel so lucky to be able to connect and engage with so many smart, interesting people through blogs, and I'm so thankful and appreciative to everyone who reads here. My personal tea-making set-up is a bit different from Archana's, and I enjoyed reading about her approach. More tea for everyone! JENKR has a lovely home, and I've also been reading along about Talia's shower renovation. K and I will be perpetual renters for quite some time yet, so it's always interesting to see what other people do with their living spaces.

4. // I'm repeating myself, but I'm still shocked at how limited the work-appropriate dress selection at Loft has become. It used to be an office-wear mainstay for me, back in 2014 when I built the backbone of my work wardrobe, mostly with a few shift dresses with flared out skirts (like these, though it's a silhouette I now find a bit juvenile in theory, though I'll keep wearing mine until they wear out) that were easy to find in their "extra 40% off sale" section. In my head, I used to refer to them as a "Forever 21 for working women" at business casual offices, and I actually meant that as a high compliment, in the sense that the ability to build a full work wardrobe quickly at an entry-level or intern price was ultimately a good and necessary thing for me back then and well, even Forever 21 items never actually wore out that quickly for me when I took good care of them.

Please note that this portion of the post contains affiliate links that could result in a commission, typically a few cents, for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

Right now though, they have absolutely nothing in their dress section that I would wear to the office, and only two things I'd consider possibilities were it not for some flaw. This teal floral lace dress is a bit too bright to be an office staple, though the material seems similar to my navy blue Ann Taylor lace shift dresses (long discontinued), which I like for both the office and for attending weddings. This navy "flippy dress" with a bit of lace might be subdued enough for work, but I don't like drop waists and the lace might be the kind of trendy detail that ends up looking dated too soon. Everything else they have is too casual, and is mostly unstructured, unlined polyester dresses of a type that has never looked good on me. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shoe Shopping

For the most part, I'm not much of a "shoe person". My taste in shoes leans boring and practical. Often, when I try to experiment with something even a bit more interesting, I end up not wearing them much because of some issue. (Everlane Modern Points that never break in, I'm looking at you!)

Please note that this post contains affiliate links that could result in a commission, typically a few cents, for me if you click. Thank you for your support! 

I bought three pairs of shoes in 2017, but two (the Sam Edelman Tristan pumps and the Cole Haan Tali bow flats) were shoes that I generally only wear for more formal court occasions or for interviews, i.e. the most boring shoes ever. The third were a pair of "The Skinny" Fitflops to replace a three year old pair that were peeling at the soles, i.e. another pair of boring (but super comfortable) shoes. I bought more in 2016, but the successful purchases that year also fell squarely into the "boring" category. There was a backup pair of Sam Edelman Petty booties from a sale, which I only belatedly realized were a stiffer, less comfortable new tumbled leather rather than the original softer leather I was used to (the texture difference may be visible just from clicking between the two on Zappos). I've still managed to put the newer pair to use with black tights and my suits, and I still wear my old pair on bad weather days, or when I'll be in thicker socks. There was also a pair of perforated leather Vans, which weren't exciting, but were comfortable and practical. 

More recently though, and this is part of why my efforts to rein in my "joy"-driven shopping of the past few months may not be apparent until April at the earliest, I seem to be craving more interesting, fun shoes. To the extent that I indulge (and I have, a bit), I hope I end up with ones that prove fun and practical, and that I will actually wear. By now, I certainly know my own shoe preferences and needs quite well: ballet flats wear out incredibly quickly because of how I walk ad how much I walk so best not to get too extravagant; most heels prove to be a no-go and 3'' is about my maximum heel height; I'm rarely inclined to endure a painful breaking in period so if it takes more than a day or two, it may never happen (I'm talking about the Everlane Modern Points again); so on, so forth. So I should be capable of making smart shoe shopping decisions for myself. 

I had thought I would try a shoe that's more on the practical side, probably black leather loafers, most likely the Sam Edelman Liors as an attempt to get the general look of the famous Gucci loafers. I've been reluctant, however, because the first pair I tried (a near-identical, partially sold out Sam Edelman style, the Loraine), when I could only get a half size up from my usual, was both a bit too long and a hair too narrow, enough that the shoes might stretch to accommodate my foot, but would be uncomfortable in the process. This didn't bode well for how my actual size would fit. In the meantime, I've been distracted from the black leather loafer idea by two things that are quite different, more fun, but also far less practical.

First, I had mentioned my on-again, off-again interest in the M.Gemi Felize if it ever came back in a solid-color leather. Separately, I also had a long-ago interest in a pair of gold glitter flats, thanks in large part to a pair that my sister owned and that she bought while traveling abroad (so I couldn't copy her). Those interests managed to come together when I saw a recent release of the M.Gemi Felize in a gold shimmer leather. I'd never owned a pair of driving moccasins before with those little rubber stoppers as a sole, so I have no idea if those are generally durable or practical. The gold shimmer effect is also new to me and of unknown durability. I've had the shoes for such a short time that it's hard to say if I've been terribly foolish in getting them, though they've done well on the two days I've worn them out so far, including to walk between home and the office. 

Second, and much more suddenly and impractically, Soludos makes a pair of llama-decorated slip-on sneakers (recently restocked in a full size range). It's even made of velvet (a fabric I normally have no interest in). It's completely inconsistent with my usual taste in shoes, especially the ones that I actually wear. And yet, I confess... I really kind of want them. I'm going to wait at least a week or two before making an order, to see if my sudden passionate desire for them passes, because wow, they're quite a departure from my usual when it comes to shoes!

Are you a shoe person? Are driving moccasins actually very fragile shoes? (Hopefully not, because I've worn the M.Gemi shoes out already, and there's no returning them.) 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Friday Link List: Raspberry Tea and Other Things

Brewing Trader Joe's tea in a David's Tea perfect mug and infuser, first recommended by Cassie. This mug has about double the capacity of a standard mug.  

Around the holidays, Trader Joe's sells a tea sampler gift set. (They used to put it in glass test tubes, but switched to small tins last year, which is more practical.) Most of the varieties aren't too special, except for the raspberry flavored black tea, which I think is great. It smells delicious, has a strong raspberry scent that doesn't feel artificial, and brews a good mellow black tea with just the right amount of raspberry flavor.

In shopping for a replacement, I scoped out some of the bigger online tea shops. Out of all the ones offering some kind of raspberry black tea, I thought the Adagio raspberry tea sounded like the best fit. I was pleased to find that it was a good, though not exact substitute. The flavor's not quite the same, but it's similar enough to tide me over. 

1. // Somewhat related to my recommendation last week for Netflix's Dirty Money series, which included an episode about Scott Tucker's payday lending empire, one of his brothers was also involved in a related business, hounding people over phantom debts. One enterprising individual fought back. I generally have an easier time identifying with defense attorneys than prosecutors (there's a lot of jumping back and forth in the field, at least in NYC), but when I hear about payday lending practices, it really makes me want to take down bad guys. Our new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the "CFPB", oft-hailed as the agency you want to threaten a report to when one runs into a bank customer service problem) director may not be as gung-ho about consumer protection as I am, though.

2. // Speaking of MM. LaFleur, it came up on Corporette recently, and some of their readers had a similar view, that the materials didn't always feel worth the price and that there are fit issues. That discussion also directed me to a MM. LaFleur buy/sell/trade group on Facebook, where a lot of people share outfit photos. 

Alas, I'm realizing that Corporette is, more often than not, a rather mean place. The person who brought up the Facebook group wanted to make fun of the women there for not fitting some kind of model ideal, or for looking as good as official website photos. Yikes! As someone who has scrolled through a fewposts in the Facebook group, the unpleasant commenter is totally off base. Women of various shapes and sizes pull off MM. LaFleur better than I do.

3. // Some more fun things from around the web. Someone on reddit made some cool-looking fake "Criterion edition" covers for the best picture Oscar nominees. There's a cool daily outfit Instagram by @yellowgelato. Bitches get Riches did a post that tied a favorite classic movie from my childhood, The Little Princess, to a helpful explanation of privilege. I've been slowly exploring more personal finance-oriented blogs. It's a slow process, but recently, I'm enjoying the discussions at Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured). Oh and I recently made Half-Baked Harvest's creamy caprese quinoa bake, which Work From Home Wardrobe recommended, and it was easy and tasty, definitely the kind of thing I could make ahead and eat for a few days.

Please note that this portion of the post contains affiliate links that could result in a commission, typically a few cents, for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

4. // I recently shopped online at Brooks Brothers for the first time. It's a natural thing to try, as a woman in a conservative profession who is ready to move up from the Ann Taylor price point. I must say, Brooks Brothers e-commerce really lags behind that of any other "mall brand". Over the years, I've online window-shopped for suits, and they seem unable to keep a range of those in stock online in a full size range. With one item I ordered in a petite size, they only notified me it was out of stock a week later, except that exact size still shows up as available on their site (as one of three petite sizes allegedly in stock). How strange! Shopping in person is not much better, as the one time I went to a brick and mortar store there were barely any women's items, and no suits.

I ordered two dresses, a ponte shift dress (only one size/color remaining) from the more affordable "Red Fleece" line for younger customers, and a cotton jacquard dress (availability may be overstated) from their main line. Sizing runs roomier and taller than J.Crew and Ann Taylor, with longer skirts and wider shoulders. The designs accommodate curves pretty well. The Red Fleece ponte shift dress may have been an outlet item, as it started at $78 and was on sale for $58. I shouldn't have been surprised that it seemed flimsy, with no lining and thin fabric.

Do you have any favorite recipes for making ahead on the weekends to eat for the rest of the week? Are you also a fan of any seasonal Trader Joe's items that you miss during the rest of the year? 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

"Pretend" Blazers

Last week, I received unhappy news. Our dress code had changed. Casual Fridays were no more, and jeans no longer had a place at the office. Alas, my brief taste of wearing jeans to work was over too soon. The newly codified rules also contained a textual ambiguity. They arguably required business formal the rest of the week and allowed business casual only on Fridays. (I don't think that's what they actually mean, though.) 

My personal interpretation of business formal for women is that it requires some kind of blazer or jacket, though it doesn't necessarily require the ultraconservative look I adhere to for entry-level attorney job interviews. This creates a slight problem, as I loathe jackets. I find them restrictive and uncomfortable, and they're so not my style. With a chest measurement that's three, as much as four, standard mall brand number-based size chart increments up from the rest of me, they never fit off the rack in a way that feels awesome. (Of course, standard size chart measurements rarely match reality, so it's not as difficult for me to shop as it sounds, though jackets are reliably more difficult than other items.) Tailoring is so expensive here that, for something I dislike wearing, it's unlikely I'll put money down for anything more complicated than hemming a sleeve, especially when I have suits that are "close enough." And most jackets need dry cleaning, which I hate needing to go do.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links that could result in a commission, typically a few cents, for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

I'm still pretty sure that business formal in the sense of requiring a blazer or jacket isn't the rule, but in the meantime, I was thinking about how I'd work around the jacket requirement, which does apply at some firms. I'd probably opt for "pretend" or "almost" jackets that have the look, but not the restrictiveness of actual blazers, nor the dry-cleaning requirements. Essentially, I'm thinking of jackets in less traditional materials.

  • J.Crew Factory Sweater Blazer - I had high hopes for this machine-washable cotton sweater blazer, but the sizing doesn't work on me. It's too long in the body, which isn't surprising, as I need petite sizing in their other blazers, and this is only available in regular. The lapels don't lay flat well, which is an issue I sometimes have in regular blazers too, maybe because my shoulders and chest are a little too wide. Outside of the length, this item generally runs a little large. (I often do better with size medium for more fitted sweaters, but small is the closest size for me here.) 
  • J.Crew Factory Open Sweater Blazer - Another machine-washable cotton sweater blazer, which has a J.Crew equivalent that is dry clean-only because it's made of merino wool. (I wouldn't experiment with machine washing J.Crew merino wool, as I've experienced shrinking even when washing with cold water and laying flat to dry.) Sizing is similar to the other sweater blazer, but because of the open, more cardigan-like design, I like this much better and may keep it in two colors. (I'm in the market for cardigans because my older ones, mostly from Loft and Ann Taylor, are showing a lot of wear.) 
  • MM. LaFleur Saint Ambroeus Jardigan - This is the last item I've personally tried. My main objection, after I ordered it following my showroom appointment, was to the price and the dry clean-only guidelines. From trying it on and seeing it on a friend, it's probably the most jacket-like cardigan I've seen. It holds it shape fairly well, and generally has a somewhat structured look because of the material. I don't think it holds that shape as well if one is very busty, unfortunately, so that was another strike for me. I tend to get sweaty and wash my sweaters and jackets often, so the dry-clean only restriction was a problem. I've seen some internet commenters say they machine wash this and lay flat to air dry, though it's so expensive that I'd get nervous about not following instructions. 
  • Betabrand Collarless Yoga Blazer - This one comes highly recommended by a law school classmate, i.e. someone to whom business formal also means a more traditional, structured-looking blazer or jacket is strongly preferred. I'm intrigued, and likely to put in an order when the black color comes back in stock. 
  • Banana Republic Long and Lean Fit Inverted Collar Ponte Blazer - I generally can't wear Banana Republic as their styles don't fit me well, but judging by the reviews, this seems like a solid machine-washable blazer.  
  • Boden Elizabeth Ponte Blazer - This one is often recommended on Corporette comment threads. 

Even as I write this post, I know not to get too attached to the goal of finding a perfect "pretend" blazer that is sufficiently structured and formal looking, but is machine-washable and doesn't feel as restrictive. Out of the items I've tried so far, both recently and in the past (I once bought a more casual, machine-washable red twill jacket from Loft, but it didn't hold its shape well), the closest thing was the MM. LaFleur Saint Ambroeus jardigan, and it was still pretty far from what I wanted. I like the J.Crew Factory Open Sweater Blazer more as a standard cardigan with an interesting collar, rather than a true jacket substitute.

What is your interpretation of what business formal requires for women? Is it ever needed at your office? Do you have any nontraditional jackets or blazers that you like?  

Monday, March 5, 2018

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

via NPR

I highly recommend the Oscar-nominated documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, currently available free to Amazon Prime Instant Video subscribers (affiliate link). It's about the family that runs Abacus Federal Savings Bank ("Abacus"), a small local bank primarily serving the Chinese immigrant community in New York City, and about a prosecution, indictment, and trial arising from the 2008 recession and mortgage crisis. Abacus appears to have been the only bank that was indicted in connection with the mortgage crisis, though only 0.3% of the mortgage loans they sold to Fannie Mae defaulted. Following the 2012 indictment, the bank and the individual defendants that proceeded to trial were acquitted in 2015, found not guilty by a jury on all 184 counts.

I didn't know anything about this story before I watched the documentary. I'll not attempt to assess the merits of the prosecution, except to say that the Manhattan DA's office, under Cyrus Vance (who remains in office) spent at least three years prosecuting this case although there was no monetary loss to Fannie Mae (and in fact some financial gain), given the extremely low default rate on the mortgages at issue. There were some other arguable irregularities in the DA's handling of the case, which you'll see in the documentary. 

Despite the serious subject matter, it was a bittersweet story in the end because the family that founded the bank (a father and several adult daughters, most of whom participated in the defense of the case) was vindicated. I thought the family's interactions were sweet and loving, though everyone certainly had very strong opinions about the handling of the case and sometimes they got annoyed at each other. They were grappling with a period of considerable stress. The legal fees to defend this case totaled over $10 million

With regards to some of the themes in this documentary, I'm a bit of an outsider. The various Chinese-American and Taiwanese-American communities across the nation are all quite different, so I don't have any special insight into the NYC-area community. I'm not from here, and I'd never presume to speak for them. Yet some of the cultural understandings the documentary touches on, which may not always interact terribly well with bank procedure and regulatory requirements, are familiar. 

One issue that arose was that of certain "gift letters" included with the mortgage applications, often from family members, which are supposed to represent unencumbered gifts. A New Yorker correspondent interviewed in the documentary, who also wrote about this case, explained how the line between gifts and loans can be blurry in this and other immigrant communities. There may not be a real distinction when it's from close family. Say one's mother gives a significant contribution towards a down payment, perhaps the $23,500 shown in a redacted letter. It's very likely the adult child will be taking care of them in the future and paying it back that way. The adult child acknowledges a responsibility to repay, but if it turns out that they can't, well, everyone's family. The correspondent reported that witnesses in the case had trouble articulating this in a way that didn't sound suspicious. An attorney from the DA expresses disgust, that people's family members provided them with money "from who knows where," as if implying something illegal and terrible.

Anyway, it's all a little more complicated than it sounds. I attempted to write a bit more about what is shown in the documentary, but I think it's best for people to watch it for themselves, and also keep an open mind, and recall that the jury did acquit, and that the default rate, whatever the defects in the mortgage applications documents, was 0.3% or less. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Money Life Lately: Dirty Money on Netflix and Breaking up with Turbotax

Fossil Mini Tab Wallet (affiliate link) - I ordered from Nordstrom Rack, where it's sold out. It carries a lot, and I like the design! Only downside is that the zip pocket in back is tiny and and not functional for anything more than 2-3 folded bills.

This first part of 2018 has been busy on the personal finance-management front! I filed my taxes and application for student loan refinancing. I've also recommitted to the You Need a Budget ("YNAB") philosophy, living on last month's income and budgeting with only the dollars I already have, rather than starting each month by budgeting paychecks not yet received. Time will tell if that new budgeting approach is, by itself, enough to make a difference in my spending.

Netflix's Dirty Money

For Netflix subscribers, I recommend the Dirty Money series. It's a fun, sharp take on a few stories of highly questionable business practices. So far, I've only watched the episodes on HSBC's anti-money laundering policy failures, Valeant Pharmaceuticals's price-hiking, and Scott Tucker's payday lending empire, and they're great, accessible stories.

As someone with some relevant legal knowledge, Dirty Money is a bit weak in terms of explaining the underlying law: what laws were violated (in the case of HSBC and Tucker; there weren't any charges in Valeant's case). Though I don't really blame them, as  federal white collar crime can be... complicated, and surprisingly abstract. This is particularly apparent in the Scott Tucker episode. During the episode, Tucker and his associates obviously insist Tucker did nothing wrong. I don't think any other part of the episode clearly explained the alleged crime, though some of the related legal questions, such as why Tucker claimed his business was a tribal entity, are discussed. (Rest assured, the jury found Tucker and a co-defendant in violation of various criminal statutes.)

I take the Valeant situation personally. To my knowledge, a Valeant entity is the sole manufacturer  of Retin-A Micro (as a generic) for the US, so their price-hiking has affected me directly. I used to get a six-month supply of Retin-A Micro for a $10 co-pay on every previous insurance plan, but during my most recent round of dermatologist treatment, the co-pay was $80 for the same tube, despite my being on an excellent government employee insurance plan. I'm on a cheaper insurance plan now, so I shudder to think what the co-pay will be. If you run most of Valeant's products through, say, GoodRx to get a general sense of pricing without insurance, you can see how they're far more expensive than any other generics. 

Should I Break Up with Turbotax? 

I always get my taxes done early, in large part because of identity theft-related fears. Also, because of the timing of my job transitions, and my dramatic jumps from higher to lower salaries and back, I've usually had a large tax refund to look forward to. Tax time is far better than Christmas! (It won't be that way anymore next year, though.) 

This isn't a flattering thing to admit, because someone who took introductory tax in law school (focused on personal income tax, no less) really should be less intimidated, but I've always used Turbotax because they have the simplest and most intuitive user interface I've tried. I've used both the online version (in my student years when I made little enough to qualify for the "freedom" edition) and the desktop software. I've also dabbled with a few competitors: CreditKarma is free but can't yet handle filing in more than one state, and TaxSlayer was frustrating because it wasn't as user-friendly. (I have not, however, tried H&R Block, which is supposed to be user-friendly, but also fairly expensive.) 

Every other year or so, there's some big, annoying problem with Turbotax. They try to nickel and dime you with weird, unnecessary offers and services throughout the process, particularly online. It's always expensive, especially because I've recently needed to file in two states, for an extra $39.99 plus tax (ha!) on top of the price for Turbotax Deluxe (affiliate link). The software often has weird glitches, and, most problematic, often has trouble saving the forms to a PDF without some kind of bizarre workaround.  

This year, I thought they'd really gone and done it, as the software crashed every single time I tried to save as a PDF or print. I was ready to break up with Turbotax for sure. It had efiled fine and I was resigned to possibly needing to request and pay for a copy of my return from the IRS and the appropriate state agencies if I needed a copy in the future.  As it turns out, at some point in the dozen or so attempts to get it to save a PDF, it somehow successfully did, even though the software crashed and didn't indicate the process was successful. Still, that's probably a lesson to me that it's time to break up with Turbotax. It's caused me more than enough frustration over the years. 

If you're an American taxpayer, what software, if any, do you use to do your taxes? Have you also suffered the indignities of Turbotax's glitches and sneaky upselling? Is anyone else also affected by Valeant's price-hiking? P.S. if you're an American taxpayer with Adjusted Gross Income ("AGI") is under $66,000, there are several free software options available every year. This year's availability can be found here on the IRS's site