Category: Symposium (Contracts Real World)

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Contracts in the Real World and the Law School Curriculum

There’s been a lot of noise recently about the law school curriculum and real world training. In Contracts courses, that typically means that we should give students experience reviewing and drafting actual agreements.

I think there’s another aspect of training that we need to provide students, and that’s to show them the relevance of the cases we assign from musty books, and show them how to apply those cases to new fact patterns. That’s where Professor Cunningham’s book, Contracts in the Real World, comes in.

It is chock full of fun contracts disputes ripped out of today’s headlines. Of course there’s the People magazine allure of reading about celebrities and their unreasonable demands and unbelievable predicaments. Cunningham’s book tells tales of love children and blackmail, bad bets and bad defenses.

It was so entertaining that I almost felt guilty reading it – which makes me think that my students will enjoy the engaging tales and humorous anecdotes just as much as I did. Cunningham does a great job of weaving old cases with new ones, and new cases with newer ones.

In showing how everything old is new again, Cunningham wages a strong case that contract law is alive and well. It made me feel that my chosen subject area was relevant and timely – and interesting. Sure, Contracts as a 1L course may not have the sex appeal of Con Law, or the life-and-death importance of Crim Law, but Cunningham shows that the subject can be intriguing just the same.

As Professor Collins put it (better and more eloquently) in his post in this symposium, what makes this book unique is not just its readability but that it places contracts within their business context. For students who haven’t yet worked on a deal or negotiated a contract, it helps them to understand abstract concepts to have some sort of setting, something they can imagine. When that setting is one that they’ve read about in the paper or heard in the news, it just makes it more fun.

I did have one minor quibble with the book, and it’s that Cunningham’s “alive and well” view of contracts was misleading with respect to one infamous case. Yes, I’m talking about the quick gloss given to ProCD v, Zeidenberg (and by extension, the slew of cases that followed in its wake). Read More

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Best Book for 1L Contracts

Larry Cunningham’s provocative account of contract law in his new book Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why they Matter is remarkable.  First, it provides a clear and easily cognizable overview of many topics including the leading cases covered in most first-year contracts courses.  Rather than providing readers with a treatise, he quickly gets to the essence of various topics including formation, unenforceable bargains, excuses, remedies, unjust enrichment, interpretation, modification, conditions, and third party beneficiaries.

The clarity with which Cunningham explains convoluted principles deeply embedded in contract doctrine makes it easy for general readers and particularly first-year students to understand.  Remarkably Cunningham is able to write with a flair and without legalese, while still preserving scholarly sophistication and retaining legal detail.  His book is therefore enlightening not only for general readers or law school students but also for academics, practitioners or anyone interested in contract law.

Second, Cunningham demonstrates classic contract law’s capacity to resolve popular contemporary problems.   He closely examines cases which seemingly only fascinate some of us as students or academics in such areas as mistake and frustration deriving from a fertile cow, a cancelled coronation, and the blockade of the Suez Canal.  He then applies these old chestnut cases to recent disputes involving overstated investments due to the Madoff ponzi scheme and Donald Trump’s delayed payments on his loans due to the Great Recession.  This approach teaches students that cases with even archaic facts can significantly impact contemporary legal disputes.

This book is a great supplement to traditional contracts casebooks as it puts the issues from century old cases into modern contexts.  In fact, I recommended this book to my students as a supplement to the Dawson, Harvey, Henderson, Baird casebook and have received only favorable feedback on the selection.   Students have found Cunningham’s approach helpful in conceptualizing how various topics in contract law fit together.   The book will not only enlighten students, but will also fascinate general readers, academics and practitioners.

Susan Schwab Heyman is an Associate Professor of Law at Roger Williams University. Some of her scholarship can be found here on the SSRN. Full disclosure: she was once Cunningham’s student in Contracts.

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Contracts Outside the Box

Let me start out with a criticism of Larry’s book: it is too much fun. I had a hard time breaking off just a chunk of Contracts in the Real World to write about and found myself spending several hours reading one interesting vignette after another on famous and infamous contracts.

The book will make a wonderful companion text to a traditional contracts casebook. Its value is not just in its engaging account of contract stories or in giving context to chestnut cases, but in providing a very intuitive framework for understanding contract law. The traditional contracts course, perhaps by virtue of having the doctrine of consideration at its heart, can be one of the most confusing in the One-L year. Students are often left to divine the inner structure (or lack thereof) of contract law on their own, likely while cramming for finals. Sometimes the epiphany comes. For many students it does not.

Larry has a real genius for laying out the doctrinal building blocks in a very thoughtful and accessible structure. He groups cases around a rough life cycle of contracts, with chapters devoted to “Getting In: Contract Formation,” to “Facing Limits: Unenforceable Bargains,” to “Paying Up: Remedies.” The layout of the book combined with its lucid writing demystifies contracts.

The layout may at first appear to make this book an ill fit as a companion text to many case books, because many of the cases appear in Contracts in the Real World under a different doctrinal heading than in a particular case book. For example, in the case book I currently use Batsakis v. Demotsis appears in the chapter on “consideration.” Larry places this classic next to cases on unconscionability. I also teach Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon in consideration, while Larry situates it in “Performing: Duties, Modification, Good Faith.”

These differences actually demonstrate a strength of the book. Some disconnect between the organization of a primary case book and a companion text forces students to move beyond a facile understanding of contract law in terms of rigid doctrines. Seeing cases in different contexts and fitting into different doctrinal boxes can help students see that lawyering involves more than memorizing black letter rules and putting issues into the right doctrinal box. Indeed, sometimes different doctrinal boxes can apply to the same problem and lead to the same result (witness rules on past consideration and duress). At other times, the choice of the doctrinal box makes a huge difference (see those same two doctrines). Accomplished students can move from memorizing blackletter law to seeing the possibility of creative lawyering. Larry’s organization – both intuitive and surprising – will help students at both stages.

One final strength of the book is Larry’s choice to include not only court cases but many contemporary contract disputes that never reached the courtroom (such as the dispute between NBC and Conan O’Brien). This brings into the classroom a wider panorama of how lawyers encounter and shape contractual problems in practice. After all, few contracts and few lawyers find their way into a courtroom. Most disputes are resolved in the shadow of law.

I also have a wish list for Larry’s next project (from personal experience, I can tell you how invigorating it is for an author who has just finished a book to be asked “what’s next?’). One of the limitations of the traditional contracts curriculum is how rarely students read and interpret – let alone negotiate or draft – actual contracts. It would be incredibly helpful as a professor to have some of the source contracts behind these stories. Although some of these contracts are already contained in a judicial opinion (Carbolic Smoke Ball) and many will not be public (Conan’s deal with NBC), others might be available with some digging. Having real and full contracts would allow professors to meet many of the items on Professor Collins’ wish list, such as transactional perspectives and drafting exercises. Although some lawyers litigate over failed contractual relationships, many more help parties plan prospectively – including by drafting and negotiating deals. For most attorneys, contracts are not an autopsy subject, to be dissected in a court opinion, but a living thing.

Professor Cunningham’s book provides a joyful reminder of the life in contracts.

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Contracts in the Real World – At Last, a Book for Modern Minds

In a world where contract law, as typically taught, has one foot in the quicksand of the past, Lawrence Cunningham’s Contracts in the Real World is a most welcome and liberating alternative.  Just consider the domain of what is commonly offered up:

* sales of “Blackacre” circa the 18th and 19th centuries,

* sailing ships destined for Liverpool circa 1864,

* carloads of Mason green fruit jars circa 1899,

* a promise to pay ₤100 to anyone who contracted the flu after using a “Carbolic Smoke Ball,” circa late 19th century,

* a 12-word “contract of sale” penned on the back of a “counter check,” circa early 1950s,

* a material breach case about a dispute over the brand of pipe (Reading or Cohoes) to be used in the construction of a home (circa early 1920s),

* representations made in 1959 in connection with a grocery “chain” begun in 1922 (by 2010 the “chain” was down to a lone store in Green Bay, Wisc.),

* promises re an option to buy a ranch, circa 1960s, and

* a 1965 contract involving the 78 year-old actress Shirley MacLaine (co-star of the 1960 movie The Apartment).

One need not be wed to Henry Ford’s maxim that “history is bunk” to appreciate that much of what is presented in contracts casebooks is past tense, past perfect, and past its time.  While such an approach to teaching contracts may be a boon to slothful professors averse to updating their class notes, it does little to prepare today’s law students for the challenges facing them in the 2012 marketplace of digital deals.

Given the yester-world of many contracts casebooks, it is refreshing to have a book that brings modernity onto the stage of legal education.  While Professor Cunningham pays due deference to the canonical cases (e.g., Lawrence v. Fox, N.Y., 1859), he does so in ways that reveal their contemporary relevance (e.g., as in how that precedent applied to a 2005 Wal-Mart dispute).  Moreover, what is so stimulating about his book is that Cunningham highlights the law relevant to current business dealings of everyone from Bernard Madoff and Donald Trump to Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton, and 50 Cent, too.  There is even a case involving a dispute over the rights to the HBO TV series The Sopranos.

Likewise, Cunningham both identifies and understands the real-world contexts of modern contract law involving everything from electronic transactions and confidentiality of information, to agreements re season tickets subscriptions for sports events, to entertainment contracts, to Amazon’s provider contracts, to any variety of contemporary non-disclosure agreements, et cetera.

In all of these ways and many others, Contracts in the Real World stands alone as a work that ushers the law of contracts into our times.

At the risk of sounding unduly laudatory, this book was a joy to read. Both stylistically and substantively, it is a work of admirable achievement without a real rival.  When one offers such acclaim, there is a corresponding obligation to justify it.  Hence, permit me to explain my evaluation, at least in summary fashion. Read More

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Dichotomies in Contract Theory and Doctrine

In this blog post, I would like to examine some of the dichotomies in contract theory and doctrine that are noted in Professor Cunningham’s Contracts in the Real World.  Some would claim that contract law is revolutionary; others would argue that it is reactionary.  Compared to the status relationships of the Middle Ages, in which economic power was primarily determined through feudal or family relationships, contract and market relations promised a more egalitarian alternative.

In the classic text Ancient Law, Sir Henry Maine described the radical transformation from a feudal society governed by custom and hierarchy to one transformed by the industrial revolution, in which socio-economic mobility was not only possible, but which was expected.  On the other hand, many today would argue that contract acts as a reactionary force, for enforcing bargains strictly as written could result in reinforcing the power imbalances that already exist in society.

Contracts in the Real World notes these dichotomies and strikes a middle ground between them.  Prof. Cunningham characterizes the schism in contract law as a dispute between formalists and realists.  This schism, he posits, applies even to foundational matters, such as the question of whether a contract has been formed.  Prof. Cunningham notes that extreme formalists would champion a return to the days of the seal and enforce only those deals that meet the strict definitions of offer, acceptance, and consideration.

Realists, on the other hand, favor scrutinizing the context of every bargain, accepting the most informal of deals and even enforcing promises to make gifts as contracts.  Thus the dichotomy between formalists and realists turns into a debate over the extent of government or court involvement in private ordering.

Throughout the book, Prof. Cunningham walks a tightrope between these positions, often making reference to contract law’s “sensible center,” and noting that with many common problems, the rules that have evolved over the years make a good deal of sense.  In essence, he makes a case for the status quo, eschewing reform in either the direction of more government interference in contract, or government withdrawal from contract.

Prof. Cunningham suggests that current law strikes the proper balance between two rather extreme positions.  The book extols the earthy pragmatism of old precedents and wise judges, and suggests that these doctrines will ultimately win out and reach a balance.  In my next blog post, I will question whether this assertion holds true in the context of technological change.

Miriam Cherry is Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law.  Some of her scholarship can be found at this link on SSRN.

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Contracts in the Real World and Contracts in Law School

Thank you to our hosts at Concurring Opinions for inviting me to participate in this online book symposium.   It is a pleasure for me to discuss Larry Cunningham’s engaging new book on contracts.

The title of Larry’s new book is Contracts in the Real World.   Intentionally or not, the title suggests that there may exist another realm for contracts other than the real world, a realm that is perhaps more theoretical and not completely real.   The alternate universe that most readily comes to mind is law school.  Contracts in the real world exist in partial contrast to contracts in law school.

Contracts in the real world bind parties and counterparties to one another.  Contracts in law school bind students to casebooks and laptops.  Contracts in the real world frequently revolve around compensation, obligations, and duties.  Contracts in law school frequently revolve around precedents, arguments, and defenses.  Contracts in the real world are about contracts.  Contracts in law school are about cases about contracts.  Needless to say more, there exists a meaningful and significant gulf between contracts in the real world and contracts in law school.

Larry’s book serves a bridge across this gulf.  Through wide-ranging popular stories about the prominent and the pedestrian crafted in accessible language yet not devoid of legal doctrine, the book connects contracts in law school with contracts in the real world.  Law school concepts like offer, acceptance, mitigation, and assignment are illuminated by real world stories of popular contracts involving Pepsi ads, Dateline NBC, Redskins tickets, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

The conceptual meditations of contract scholars like Cardozo, Corbin, and Williston are expressed and explained in contract controversies involving well-known figures such as Michael Jordan, Maya Angelou, and Lady Gaga, and through common experiences like purchasing lottery tickets, signing mobile phone agreements, and buying football tickets online.  Given the accessible language and popular stories, it is easy for the reader to be lulled into forgetting that they are reading and learning about the law, much in the same way that Tom Sawyer lulled his friends into whitewashing a fence by making it seem more like a treat than a chore.

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