An interview with David Leys – A career in law and policy11 min read

We asked Deven Malone, our Summer Policy Analyst, to interview one of our newest member of the Unbuilt Labs family – David Leys. David spoke about what he is looking forward to as a Winter Policy Analyst, why he is taking California and New York Bar exams despite being a qualified lawyer of the Brussels Bar, and his perspectives on sustainable fashion.

Deven: What attracted you to Unbuilt Labs?

I decided to apply for the position of Winter Policy Analyst at Unbuilt Labs after graduating from Columbia Law School. Unbuilt Labs is a challenging and intellectual environment where I can enhance my previous research experiences from the solar panel, clothing and food industries. I am excited to work with the diverse and highly qualified leadership team at a think tank with an international network.

For the upcoming quarter, Unbuilt Labs is focusing on sustainable fashion. This is of great interest to me as I can apply my legal and policy skills in trade and customs. I am concerned about the traceability of the supply chain of textiles. I believe it is crucial for major fashion brands to design, manufacture, distribute and recycle garments in a sustainable way.

Unbuilt Labs pushes me to think out of the box and to find innovative solutions to clients’ problems worldwide. For instance, I will be providing strategic advice for fashion companies on designing sustainable business models.

What was it like working in Brussels? Did the cosmopolitan nature of the city inform any opportunities one may not find elsewhere?

As a cosmopolitan city, Brussels attracts talent from all of Europe. Exchanging ideas with such a diverse and talented group of people is enriching. I developed a deep understanding of business issues in a wide range of industries such as new technologies, energy and food there.

There is a rapidly changing legal environment and an emphasis on performance when you are working in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. Every day is different as new challenges come up constantly. You find yourself at the forefront of many new legal and policy issues. I was able to identify emerging trends and had access to key information through conferences and (networking) events.

A professional career in Brussels can be unpredictable. It is easy to switch between private and public sector practice, and a lot of people, including myself, leverage the opportunity to gain exposure to the different facets of law and policy.

I really enjoyed working at the European Commission and at prestigious law firms in Brussels. There, I dealt with legal issues that are international, diverse, and complex.  For instance, I drafted Commission decisions on State aid in the airlines sector in the Directorate-General for Competition; advised and represented governments, Fortune Global 500 companies, and associations on international trade and agro-food matters; dealt with an EU merger for Fortune 500 company and conducted due diligence for an IPO; and advised SMEs in the retail, cosmetics and food industries on contracts and EU Regulations (GDPR and REACH) compliance.

What is the Brussels Effect? How have your experience in the European Union contributed towards your understanding of law and policy in the United States?

During my time at Columbia Law School, I had the privilege to conduct legal and policy research on online copyright under the supervision of Professor Anu Bradford. I also reviewed and edited chapters of her book “The Brussels effect” published by Oxford University Press.

“The Brussels Effect” is a truly inspiring book and an invaluable resource as it highlights the role EU is playing in setting precedents on copyright regulations for global corporations. In theory, EU regulations such as the GDPR apply only to the 27 Member States to the EU. In practice, these EU regulations apply to companies which offer services to people within the EU even if they are not incorporated in the EU. That is the reason why there is a legal hegemony from the EU at the global level. It is in the interest of the American corporations to understand the content of these EU regulations as they may be fined by the European Commission if they do not comply with their legal regimes. Even if American companies do not feel concern by EU regulations, they need to screen their activities and see whether these EU regulations may apply to them. Imagine that an American company collects personal data on its website and that people within the EU consult that website. In that case, the American company must comply with the GDPR and publish a privacy notice on its website explaining how the data are collected, used, kept, deleted and so on. This is crucial for American companies to anticipate these legal issues because they may have a detrimental effect on their business if they ignore it.

What inspired your foray into the arts, coming from an international trade and contract background?

Arts is a fascinating field as it is evolving (with new technologies) and diverse (e.g., music, motion picture, literature, paintings, comics). In 2017 and 2018, I attended the Marché du Film at the Festival of Cannes. I also was the Public Relations Manager of the 4th edition of the Festival International du Film de Bruxelles (“Brussels International Film festival”). In this context, I developed considerable experience in licensing, partnerships and NDAs for SMEs in the cultural and creative sectors. My contract background was really useful for the negotiation and drafting of agreements between the different actors in the motion picture industry. My international trade background allowed me to grasp the business issues quickly and to serve the interests of my clients with professionalism.

Given your knowledge of entertainment law and the arts, how do you foresee sustainable practices improving the fashion industry?

Sustainable practices will ensure the viability of the fashion industry in the long-term. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the fashion industry is the second largest polluter of water globally due to the water-intensive textile dyeing process, the use of chemicals and other substances, and so forth. The process of outsourcing production and transporting huge volumes of clothes across oceans is also incredibly unsustainable. There are human rights concerns laid out by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in a lot of developing countries where fashion companies outsource their production.

Some major fashion brands such as Hermes, Zegna, and Adidas, are signatories of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action or the Fashion Pact Act. These two acts are soft laws and are the first steps towards a more sustainable fashion industry. Some countries consider giving incentives to sustainable fashion companies. In this context, I am a proponent of sustainable practices as they will contribute to the long-term growth of the fashion companies. Customers trust sustainable brands that are conscious of their impact on communities and the environment.

In order to improve environmental impacts and quality of life across the value chain, what changes in the fashion industry do you hope to see?

In order to improve the environmental impacts in the value chain of garments, I believe that several steps are required. The first is awareness. Fashion companies must know and understand that sustainability is not an option but a required path for the viability of their industry. The second is membership to certifications and standards. Fashion companies can adopt certain certifications like the EU Ecolabel or WRAP. They provide an established framework and guidelines for companies to follow. The third is implementation and monitoring of the certifications. In practice, this third step may be difficult as most companies have a global supply chain and it is not easy to trace the whole supply chain. Some tools like the Higg Index developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) enables brands and retailers to measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance.

I think an international regulatory body similar to IATA in the aviation industry would be beneficial, but the complexity of the fashion industry due to the number of actors involved, would make this an incredibly challenging task.

Having worked across many countries and cultures, what are your thoughts on company work culture?

Work culture is really important to the sustainable development of a company. I support a win-win situation between the employees and the company. On the one hand, employees bring their expertise, energy and time to the company. On the other hand, the company offers an inspiring, respectful and challenging environment. I strongly value passion and hard work. Feedback and support from my supervisors help improve my skills to the benefit of the company.

David Leys, Winter Policy Analyst

David is a qualified lawyer of the Brussels Bar and an applicant for California as well as New York Bars. With experience at Sidley Austin LLP, the European Commission, and the Embassy of Belgium in Tokyo, he brings an international perspective towards trade, competition and intellectual property.

Having twice attended the Marché du Film at the Festival of Cannes, David has considerable experience in licensing, partnerships and NDAs for SMEs in the cultural and creative sectors. He has recovered up to 200,000 USD for SMEs by pleading before trial and appeal courts in commercial and IP laws.

David’s other notable projects, which include dealing with an EU merger for Fortune 500 company and conducting due diligence for an IPO reflect his interest in new technologies, energy, and the Arts. He has advised and represented governments, Fortune Global 500 companies, and associations on international trade and agro-food matters.

He is extending his previous experience in trade law in the solar panel, clothing, and food industries at Unbuilt Labs, where he will be conducting legal and policy research on sustainable fashion.

His articles on diplomatic protection, trade and customs law consequences of Brexit, and trademark royalties in customs, were published in the Harvard International Law Journal Online and the Global Trade and Customs Journal.

  • Columbia Law School, New York City, Master in Laws (LL.M.) ‘20
  • College of Europe, Bruges, Master in European Law (LL.M.) ‘12
  • Université Catholique de Louvain, Master in Law (J.D. equivalent) ‘11
  • Université Saint-Louis, Brussels, Bachelor in Law ‘09