During our travels for speaking engagements and legal tech conferences, we come across some interesting attorneys. Luckily, our reputation helps secure exclusive interviews with some of the more celebrated and well-known attorneys, and we’ve built a solid core of attorney profiles here on Big Legal Brain.
Recently, we met up with Greg Coughlin, a Georgia native who has been practicing fine print law for the last twenty-two years. He is, in fact, one of the most knowledgeable and recognized fine print attorneys in the world. We sat down with him over coffee recently to catch up with what he’s doing and to learn more about the craft of fine print lawyering.
Law school and year of graduation?
I’m a 1990 graduate of Harvard Law School. I was notes editor for the Harvard Journal of International Fine Print Law.
I haven’t heard of that journal
Not many people outside of Harvard or the fine print industry have heard of it. But it’s well-recognized within the small world of fine print law. It’s the size of a typical U.S. postage stamp, so you’re not going to see it on most living room coffee tables.
How about a fine print summary of your career, in 100 words or less?
I deal in fine print and don’t worry too much about counting words, but here goes. Skadden, then FDA enforcement, then a fairly long stint in-house at Pfizer. Brief work for Chase in its credit card services division, then I went into private practice. I’m now officially more a global fine print consultant than an attorney.
What got you into practicing fine print law?
I couldn’t sleep as a kid and was often up late at night. I became obsessed with late night television commercials. Totally obsessed. After I had ordered about $2,000 worth of stuff that I thought was free—or at least within my allowance money—my parents sat me down and explained fine print. I’ve been hooked ever since.
So you were hooked on fine print even as a kid?
Yeah, but I couldn’t read it quickly enough, at least on TV, so I had to figure out how to slow it down or magnify it. Once I did, I was blown away by what I saw. I actually helped come up with a process that later became part of Tivo. True story.
What’s the tiniest print you’ve ever seen for a fine print contract?
Well, here is one [holding out a finger] that would normally be about 75 pages if printed normally. It’s a software licensing contract, standard online stuff. This one, though, fits on the back of the left wing of a flea. I’m simply holding it on one of my fingers. At least I’m pretty sure it’s still there.
Yes, shit. But it’s not that unusual. I saw an online contract last week that was the size of a single pixel. The button to click to accept the contract—what we call “the “Agree”—was twenty million times larger than one letter “e” in the contract. Needless to say, the terms of the contract are ridiculously awesome.
Honestly, aren’t they all contracts of adhesion, just waiting for courts to declare them null and void?
No, not at all. The Sixth Circuit ruled last May that, so long as the consumer has a “reasonable and extendable opportunity” to review fine print terms before agreeing to them, the resulting contract is valid and enforceable. And a “reasonable and extendable opportunity” includes the ability to borrow a Gallilean system of microscopes or monoculars. I actually helped advocate for that standard. But, honestly, when push comes to shove, you don’t have to hit “Agree” if you don’t want to. That’s contract 101. High school stuff, if you ask me.
You fine print lawyers must be a boring lot.
Not so much, really. Believe it or not, fine print lawyers are a pretty rowdy bunch. We take our work and craft very seriously but we party hard. There’s a guy—he used to be in-house counsel for Monsanto—who had a 120-page seed distribution contract tattooed on his ass. Except it was in fine print and it fit on a one-inch square portion of his right cheek. It was a tattoo in the shape of a Roundup Ready soybean seed. Wait, it was his left cheek. It was actually done very tastefully.
I’m dead serious. In fact, Monsanto got into a dispute with a farm cooperative about the seed distribution contract, which involved interpretation issues. The attorney literally got his ass hauled into court. They had him face down on counsel table with about fourteen big firm attorneys around him, staring at his ass through high-powered jeweler’s monoculars. The case ultimately settled, but I still think it’s the only case in which a court literally hauled an attorney’s ass into court.
I’m stumped trying to think of another case, actually.
I keep searching but so far it’s the only one.