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Category: Behavioral Law and Economics


Why Do We Sign Letters?

signature.jpgI have spent some time recently signing hundreds of clerkship recommendation letters. In itself, the process is a minor irritant, which I’m happy to do to help deserving students obtain jobs with judges after graduation. But, like many tedious things, the process inspires thoughts about what I could do to shortcut it.

Not signing letters isn’t an option. (Unless OSCAR sweeps the world of state courts too). In thinking about why, I’ve come to conclude, with no scholarly studies to back me up, that there is something interestingly persuasive about a signature.

Anecdotal evidence for the point comes every day in the mail. Not a day passes without receipt of “signed” letters from various selling agents (goods, services, political ideologies). Those agents have invested capital in an autopen, or in time, but either way they’ve put their money behind the persuasive force of a writing.

But this is strange. We all know that sales documents received in the mail, like clerkship letters, aren’t individualized. Signatures are rote (at best) or robotic (at worst). Rational buyers, and judges, ought to be indifferent between an inked signature and a “/s/electronic/s/” version. But inked signatures persist, despite their inefficiency. Why do they work?

I have a theory. I think that when we see a signature, we associate it with a contract, and our totemic beliefs (exposed in the beginning of every contract law class) in the ritual power of writing things down and signing them. In popular culture, contracts exist when they are signed (and, less frequently, sealed). So when we see a signature on a letter, I think it suggests a sort of warranty.

What is the content of the warranty? I bet it looks something like this:

My name is Dave Hoffman, and I endorse this message.

Even though you don’t know me from Adam, you can’t help but rely on that ritually-created warranty a little in deciding whether to buy what I’m selling. That is, signatures help bridge the gap between purely impersonal sales (the internet is the paradigm, surely) and the door-to-door salesmen of the past. By signing a letter to a judge, I’m associating myself with the message, making it marginally harder to ignore. (Any effect is smaller for my signature than for a professor that the judge has heard of, no doubt.)

In arriving on this explanation, I reject two other stories. It can’t be the identity-assuring role, because (1) we don’t know these agents’ handwriting; and (2) in the case of recommendation letters, the court can more cheaply rely on other proxies (letterhead) to serve that purpose. I also don’t think that inked John Hancocks are really analogous to the “signatures” on emails – the persistence of that convention is just habit, reinforced by moribund cultural norms.

Are there other theories?