Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Death of [the] Contracts [Course]... Maybe that's a good thing

The AALS Contracts list-serve two months ago carried a stream of interesting comments around the question whether contracts should be taught in four or six hour blocks of time. These discussions have been brought by the need to inject other things into the first year curriculum, such as skills courses, constitutional law, etc... (which I am all for). However, I want to offer a different proposal than a mere reduction of hours -- maybe we shouldn't teach contracts to first year students at all. Instead perhaps we should teach students in the first semester Article 2 of sales. Here are my reasons, in no particular order of significance. By the way, you can disparage me in person if you are going to the Contracts Panel at SEALS this summer, as this will be the basics of my presentation...

1. Its a Legislative World and I'm a Legislative.... The same argument I consistently hear justifying common law contracts as a First Year Course is that it teaches students how to read cases. First, doesn't Torts, Property, Criminal Law, and Civil Procedure do equally fine jobs of teaching students how to read cases? Second, and more importantly, where in the first year curriculum are we teaching students how to read statutes and Codes. We are not, and as a result, when students come to take a code based course, they repeat their first year growing pains again by by having to learn how to read and analyze statutes. Sales provides a great opportunity to fill the legislative gap and still .....

2. Introduce Students to the basic principles of contracting. Offer, assent, parole evidence, statute of frauds, battle of the forms (of course) impossibility, remedies... Its all there. The difference is two fold: one, the material is in a more concrete format in the form of a code; and two, the material becomes more understandable because students have a familiar and definite context for understanding specific rules like parole evidence, statute of frauds exceptions and the battle of the forms. As I tell my UCC students, we have all bought candy bars by the time we get to law school and we know the essence of the process --I give you money and you give me a Snickers. We now are putting definite terms to that process.

3. Is Common Law Contracts that relevant anymore? Sure the basic principles of offer, acceptance, etc.... in some form stretch the gambit of contracting. But our legal system has created so many different types of contracts that each vary in nuanced ways from each other. Employment contracts are different from sales contracts which are different than construction contracts, which are different from licenses and so on and so on. The idea that we are teaching general principles that stretch through the curriculum falls apart when students learn that each of these different contracts have their own unique language and terminology that renders the common law of contracts at best a quaint introduction to the sport of creating obligations. Add to that fact that much of contracting gets reduced to form-negotiations and contracting as an art becomes mostly irrelevant. If contracting were taught as an exercise in transacting, I believe it would be far more effective. One of the comments from the contracts list-serve discussion that I really appreciated came from Peter Linzer, in which he said:

At a less abstract, but much more practical level, I have for a long time been advocating a shift from Contracts as a course in busted deals to a course in what real contracts lawyers do, advising clients, helping them to plan, and getting the plan on paper through good drafting. I’m still trying to slip a bit of that into my four-credit course, but I can’t really change much. Some parts of Contracts must be taught from the cases (interpretation, the parol evidence rule, remedies, the click-wrap issues (which, of course, are also part of the transactional part of the process)). But the real task of preparing students to be transactional lawyers needs to be taught differently, and can’t be covered well in a four credit course. I can teach a class of 100 how to draft, but I can’t review their work to raise them beyond the very basics. That has to be covered in a more advanced course. But if we can sensitize students to what contract lawyers really do, and the important role of drafting and planning, we can greatly improve the abysmally low level of quality among most business lawyers, especially those dealing with small businesses. That, however, needs much more time than is available in a four hour course.

I concur.

4. Teaching common law contracts does not necessarily prepare students for the bar exam. First of all, students rarely retain what the parole evidence rule is versus the statute of frauds between the end of their contracts course and the beginning of their second year (or they may just deny any knowledge of those things in class). Moreover, we have pretty well ceded bar preparation to Bar-Bri, Mishmash, or what ever other cram course students are willing to fork out $2500 to cram long-forgotten doctrines in their minds. Have we all of a sudden become less confident in bar-review's capacity to teach contract doctrine as well? It seems to me that most professors I talk to vehemently deny that they are teaching for the bar (which I do as well). So why would we teach a course on that basis.

5. For that matter, Sales does not prepare students for the bar exam either, but there is a trickle down effect. In the same way that contracts does not necessarily create a long-term knowledge of contracts doctrines, neither will Sales. Though, at least by teaching sales early, we open the door for other UCC courses to be more accessible to students. Students that take Article 9 or Article 3-4, are more likely to be prepared for courses like bankruptcy, debtor and creditor rights, taxation, and corporations. Getting students in the sales curriculum earlier rather than later aids that process.

6. Wouldn't we all be happier teaching a perspectives-esque upper level course on the theory of contracts. Really isn't that what we all really want to teach anyway. This to me is the best use of the contracts course and one that often gets pushed aside for lack of hours or because students are not quite ready to understand these nuances. This is the art of preparing lawyers: equipping them with the intellectual tools to make rational decisions regarding how contracting should be undertaken. Forcing students to struggle through Law and Economics views of contracting, moral theory of contracting, etc... before they truly understand the contracting process seems to me to be reversed. Students will learn more and professors will be happier with the result.

The only upside to the contracts course is it might make the classic movie, The Paper Chase irrelevant, though I think I can live with that -- I think.

Marc (MLR)



Anonymous said...

Only a blog for people who teach law rather than practice it would think contracts is no longer relevant. I use what I learned in contracts almost every day representing clients, which is what most lawyers actually do.

Marc Roark said...

Anon --

I don't disagree that contracts is relevant for attorneys. My post reflects however, the difference in when we teach it. I think it serves students better in other formats, i.e., Professor Linzer's transactions course or a jurisprudential course on the theory of contracts, not necessarily in the first year curriculum.

Thanks for commenting.


Jennifer Martin said...

Yikes! As a contracts professor who loves the study, I cannot disagree with you more. So many of the concepts that students learn in contracts make second and third appearances in later courses where these same concepts are reinforced. Much of the study of law is learning the concepts and how to think about the law. Contracts is a great vehicle for learning about the law. For my courses in Business Organizations, Sales, Payments and Secured, I so often find myself reminding the students of the fundamentals that they learned in first year Contracts and how those concepts play out in specialized study later.

Provoking post though!

Marc Roark said...

I agree that if we are talking about contracts spread over two semesters in five or six hour time frames, there is a alot of difference. But I am wondering though, how much difference is there between a four hour course on contracts and the sales course. Obviously the six hour contracts course has a substantial amount of difference between Sales, but the four hour variation has a much smaller list of differences: maybe promissory estoppel and third party beneficiary contracts, though as many of the comments reflected from the AALS list-serve, TPBK's tend to be one of the first things dropped. I am just wondering what else does not come in, that couldn't be appropriately weaved into an early course on Sales, even if just included as a comparison.

I'm also wondering if our students would be better served by two distinct courses, one on theory and one on practical transacting both later in their law school career. It seems that the gains we make by presenting the material early may be low compared to the benefits that this type of split might reap.

The last point that I would make is why can't other courses in the first year serve just as adequately as vehicles for teaching students how the law works.

Just thinking out loud on some of these. Good discussion on the issues.