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Rocketing from 0 to 128 mph in less than four seconds, the new Kingda Ka roller coaster at the Six Flags theme park in New Jersey is shattering world records for speed and height. Whether James Coughlin will join thrill seekers on the ride is up in the air. His job as general counsel for Six Flags, Inc., ordinarily provides all the excitement he needs. Working out of the firm’s New York offices, Coughlin, 53, handles everything from Securities and Exchange Commission compliance to labor contracts for 30 sites in North America. Coughlin came to the world’s largest regional theme park business from a career in securities work and M&A. During the late 1980s, while at the small New York firm Corbin, Silverman & Sanseverino, Coughlin met Kieran Burke, who became chairman of Six Flags and, in 1998, brought Coughlin on as GC. Nowadays, when daily chores make Coughlin feel “millions of miles from the business,” he heads for a nearby Six Flags, sometimes with his two teenagers. “I get energized by the smiles on people’s faces,” he says. Here’s what Coughlin told Corporate Counsel about his job. Like all senior officers, I have a card that lets me bring in ten guests at a time without charge. I have to pay for cotton candy, though. I enjoyed my law firm days, especially after I got some seniority. But my present job is exciting — a real change of pace. At Six Flags, I am a whatever-comes-in-the-door lawyer, learning a lot and dealing with different areas of the company. I’m also involved in making decisions — something we business attorneys long for. I don’t just inform the business side about risks, I’m also supposed to have an opinion about whether or not we should assume them. You come to appreciate the need for a company to take chances, and you begin to look at life differently. It’s a seasonal company. My busiest period is January through the middle of April, generally dealing with contracts and pre-opening issues for the parks. Once the sites are up and going and need less day-to-day advice, I tend to do more traditional business law — corporate governance, financings, litigation, and the like. After 9/11, the insurance premiums shot through the roof, so we’ve been self-insuring more than we used to. Most of our cases are modest in terms of potential exposure, though, with just a handful each year that warrant my getting actively involved. We don’t want to go to trial often. [Liability cases may take Six Flags to court three to four times a year.] We prefer to do the right thing: to make settlements that compensate people without encouraging frivolous cases. If someone is injured in a factory, it’s usually not news, but amusement parks are high-visibility businesses, and Six Flags is a well-known brand. If someone happens to get hurt at one of our facilities, it may be a big story. It’s not, though most people assume that it must be. It’s finite. I spend much more of my time on labor law issues than on liability concerns. I usually have to be shamed into going on the rides. I did try the Sky Coaster, which involves bungee jumping. You’re put into a harness, hoisted up 200 feet, and dropped. When the harness finally stopped me, it seemed as though the ground was two inches from my nose. There’d have to be a real good reason.

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