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My Favorite Contract Metaphors: Skeuomorphs, Sea Squirts, Barnacles and Black Holes

posted by Mitu Gulati

I love contract metaphors. I’m especially fond of metaphors for the phenomenon of antiquated and useless contract provisions that find a way to persist over the decades in boilerplate contracts.  Philip Wood, the legendary English lawyer, uses the metaphor of barnacles on a ship’s hull to describe how more and more of these useless provisions can accumulate over the years, eventually severely impacting the efficiency of the ship. If you like boats and hate barnacles (perhaps because one of your most hated chores in the summers was for you to attempt to scrape barnacles off the hull of your uncle’s fishing boat), this metaphor may work especially well for you (sorry, Uncle Marvin). Another favorite of mine, that does not bring up memories of unpleasant chores, is Doug Baird’s skeuomorph.  To quote Douglas, who in the course of his explaining why we should not be surprised that suboptimal contract terms both emerge and then persist, has some wonderful examples:

To take a[n] . . .  example, maple syrup is often sold in a glass bottle with a small handle that serves no discernable utilitarian purpose. This is a relic of the time when maple syrup came in jugs and the handles were large enough to be useful. This phenomenon—of a product feature persisting when incorporated in a new environment in which it no longer serves a function—is well known and has a name: skeuomorph.

Douglas goes on to explain that these skeuomorphs can bizarrely become desired features of the product in question (and remember he is drawing an analogy to contract drafting). He writes, while continuing with the maple syrup bottle example:

Buyers of maple syrup want to see a small handle on the bottle. It serves no purpose, but it is what consumers have come to expect. Blue jeans are no longer made for working men who carry pocket watches, but buyers of blue jeans want a watch pocket all the same, even though they have no idea of the purpose it serves and have no use for it. Everyone expects Worcestershire Sauce bottles to come wrapped in paper even though the reason for doing this has long disappeared. Tagines took a particular shape for functional reasons when they were made of clay, and they retained this shape when made of aluminum even though there was no longer a functional reason for doing so. Skeuomorphs can be found everywhere on the “desktops” of personal computers

In short, the idea that a clause could be added to a contract and remain there merely because everyone expected it to be there suggests nothing special about either pari passu clauses in particular or contract terms more generally. The same forces are at work as with ordinary product attributes. Crafting legal prose is hard, and few contracts are ever written from scratch. Lawyers almost always start with a template taken from someplace else. For this reason, those who draft contracts are likely to import features from earlier contracting environments, even when they serve no purpose, merely because they are familiar. To give another example involving financial instruments, the first railway bonds were based on real estate mortgages. They still bear some of the attributes of real estate mortgages, and not always for the better.

If you like this topic, I recommend Douglas’ piece “Pari Passu Clauses and the Skeuomorph Problem in Contract Law” (you should of course ignore all the bits of this brilliant piece that are critical of my paper with Bob Scott and Steve Choi on Contractual Black Holes (yes, another metaphor I’m very fond of) that Douglas’ piece was a comment on).

Last but not least is the Sea Squirt, a close cousin of the barnacle.  This one comes from M&A guru, Glenn West who was speaking on a panel at UT in 2018 on M&A Contracting.  The title of his presentation was: “Have Sea Squirts Invaded Your Contract?—Avoiding Mindless Use of So Called ‘Market’ Terms You May or May Not Understand”.  Below I’ve excerpted some priceless language from an August 2017 blog post by Glenn on MAC clauses in M&A agreements.  And yes, Glenn is talking about M&A contracts containing brainless bits of language; the contracts drafted by the most elite among all transactional lawyers.

As an aside, there are a number of excellent recent papers arguing over how brainless M&A contracts are; see here (Anderson & Manns) and here (Coates, Palia & Wu).

From Glenn’s blog post, here goes:

The sea squirt is an animal that begins life with a brain and a tail.  Immediately after it is born, it uses its brain and tail to propel itself through the water until it finds some rockto attach itself.  Once it attaches itself to that rock it consumes its brain, absorbs its tail, and thereafter never moves again; it lives out its remaining life as a brainless water filter.

Many of the standard terms of M&A agreements also began their existence with a brain—the brain of a smart lawyer who perceived an issue that needed to be addressed and drafted a clause to address it.  And then other smart lawyers recognized the value of that newly drafted clause, and adapted and improved it until it became a standard part of most M&A agreements.  But once that clause became attached to the “market” it became divorced from the brain or brains that created it, and soon everyone was using it regardless of whether they truly understood all the reasons that prompted its draftingEven worse, market attachment is so strong that even after a standard clause has been repeatedly interpreted by courts to have a meaning that differs from the meaning ascribed to that clause by those who purport to know but do not actual know its meaning (mindlessly using the now brainless clause), it continues to be used without modification.  Such is the case for many with the ubiquitous Material Adverse Change (“MAC”) or Material Adverse Effect (“MAE”) clause.

My friend at UNC Chapel Hill, John Coyle, has an article coming out soon on “Contract as Swag”.  I’m eager to see how that metaphor will work. I like swag and I want learn how to get more of it.

Comments

Who could forget Grant Gilmore's description of negotiability as "a fly preserved in amber"?

Last semester I had been describing a lien as a remora--it hangs onto the collateral and travels with it, but can be released. I don't think the students appreciated it. And not that many of them get the idea of the matching counterparts of an indenture being the afikoman of contract law.

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