Category: Teaching

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Welcome Contracts Students!

As new 1Ls begin to immerse themselves in the wonderful world of law, we welcomed them here on this blog recently with an overview of the first-year curriculum that has been in place for ages. It concluded with a particular reference to the course on Contracts, about which I’ve recently published a new book connecting its classic cases and doctrines to contemporary contract disputes in popular culture and covered in the media.

From that book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter, the following continues to provide a gateway into that field by introducing two legends whose venerable work on the subject continues to define the boundaries of recognized debate on most of the issues. The legends are Samuel Williston and Arthur Corbin.

In 1920, Williston, a Harvard professor, published a monumental treatise on the entire law of contracts, and updated it until his death in 1963. In 1950, Arthur Corbin, a professor at Yale, promulgated an equally magisterial and comprehensive treatise, based on earlier writings throughout his career.

These works—still kept up-to-date by successor editors—influenced generations of lawyers and judges addressing contract disputes. Williston’s philosophy dovetailed with that of the eminent jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Corbin’s resonated with that of the esteemed judge, Benjamin N. Cardozo.

Williston epitomized a formalist approach to law and reflected what some call the “classical” school of contract. It looks to whether parties in a transaction were giving and getting something, emphasizing a concept called “consideration” as the signal of an enforceable contract. This school of thought held unenforceable not only promises to make gifts or attend dinner but promises merely inducing another party to take some action.

In this view, the remedy for breach of a bargain is to pay the injured party money to put them in the same economic position they would have enjoyed had the other performed. This classical conception of contract law dominated well into the twentieth century, and remains a force today.

Corbin took a realist approach to law and offered a more pragmatic conception of contract. Though agreeing with Williston on many points, Corbin recognized, as courts increasingly did in the twentieth century, a wider range of circumstances that create contractual obligations. Williston’s bargain model of consideration remained, but loosened so that even some promises to make gifts could be enforced, so long as there was an identifiable return, like naming a college endowment. It recognized reliance on a promise as a basis of contractual liability, in a novel doctrine commonly called “promissory estoppel.”

Compensation for disappointed expectations remains the primary measure of remedy. But recognizing promissory estoppel gave equal dignity to measuring remedies by out-of-pocket costs incurred relying on a promise.

These twentieth century developments that Corbin captured, and helped to shape, reflected broader social developments as well, moving law’s orientation from a formalist to a realist conception. For example, classical contract’s relative strictness, limiting the scope of contractual obligation, was accompanied by an equivalent strictness of enforcement: if a contract was hard to get into, it was also hard to get out of. People could be bound to contracts that were made based on mutually mistaken assumptions or even where performance became impossible.

But as the ambit of contractual obligation expanded, so did grounds for excusing it, like mutual mistake about the terms of a trade, or impossibility of performance, such as a power outage in a rented banquet hall. Similarly, classical contract law venerated written records, limiting the scope of obligation to what was plainly meant within a document’s four corners. Corbin and his realist descendants were more willing to consider evidence supplementing these written expressions. Read More

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Welcoming All 1Ls Across America!

Welcome all first-year law students to the wonderful world of law!  I teach Contracts at George Washington University (though I’m visiting at Fordham University this fall).  My students find it useful to begin our journey into that subject–which many find can be difficult–with a step back to look at the shape of the first-year law school curriculum.

It has not changed much in a century and does not vary widely among law schools today, from Cooley to Columbia.  I also try to be sure to connect the topics and examples appearing in today’s casesbooks (which have also not changed much over time and do not vary from school to school) to current topics in the news.  Students at other schools can share in these stories by obtaining a copy of my book, a fun supplement to the Contracts course,  Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter.

Some thoughts about the shape of today’s 1L curriculum appear in the beginning of the book, including the following excerpt.  I summarize this for my students on our first day of class to give a sense of why today’s curriculum looks as it does and where contract law fits within it.

The curriculum dates to a legendary figure of nearly a century and a half ago.  In the 1870s, C. C. Langdell, as Dean of Harvard Law School, designed a simple way to organize the vast field of law still used to this day. He thought that underlying law’s complexity were a handful of basic ideas. Examining leading cases organized around these ideas would reveal law’s elements and rhythms.

Common law actions, meaning those courts resolve one by one, were of greatest interest to Langdell and dominate many 1L courses, including Contracts.  In the United States, following English traditions, common law is developed by state courts as disputes arise. Originally referring to law “common” to all citizens, today this system yields some variation among states, but general principles tend to prevail. Though the common law evolves as society and the economy change, judges draw on precedents when evaluating new cases—under the principle of stare decisis.

Langdell organized the welter of cases on numerous topics according to basic questions: how, what, and why. The question of how isolates the procedures private parties follow when resolving disputes using civil litigation. This is the practice of the lawsuit, arranged into the sub-field of study called civil procedure. Read More

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Bad Humor in the Classroom

It was a terrible thing to say, an awful attempt at humor. A tenured professor at the Merchant Marine Academy, cuing up a documentary film  before leaving a class, alluded to the orange-haired man who, 11 days earlier, had massacred a dozen people in a Colorado movie house and wounded five times more.  (The teacher reportedly said: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.”)

The associate dean promptly filed a recommendation of termination, classifying the action as notoriously disgraceful, a ground for firing in the school’s rules.  The head of school followed suit, putting the professor on administrative leave and halting his teaching.

The teacher, who made the statement without any bad intent, immediately apologized to everyone concerned, including especially one student, whose father was a victim of the Colorado gunman.  According to sources I contacted who know the teacher, he is a first-rate, solid person who simply made a crude comment.

Having been an associate dean myself, I have heard many worse jokes spoken during class by professorial comedians  manqué.  Occasionally I did consult with a colleague after students reported such episodes and even felt constrained to confer with my Dean once.  But I never thought to suspend a teacher or suggest a suspension or termination over blundered, insensitive, stupid but innocent or naïve attempts at humor.

In such cases, I came to realize that it has  been difficult for many teachers in recent decades to sustain a sense of good humor in the classroom without offending the sensibilities of at least some.  Classrooms are not comedy clubs, of course, but humor can be a valuable pedagogical supplement.  We must weigh our words in class, true, yet classroom colloquy is more robust when the scales are more forgiving than shackling.

The associate dean and head of school seem to be overreacting. They can admonish and berate the professor in many other ways than suspension or threatened termination.  A similar bit of overreaction is how the New York Times decided to report this story in today’s paper.  At least the writer had the good sense to quote tenure guidelines that cast doubt on the proportionality of the administration response.

I hope I never say anything so  dreadful in my classroom. If I do, however, I hope that my associate dean, dean or president would not rush to punish me or have the New York Times add injury to embarrassment. The self-loathing is enough.

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Another Tip That Education Is Changing: Open Stax Textbooks

Costs of education need to come down. Open course materials are growing. Maybe education will indeed undergo a transformation in the next ten years. There are many things that will need to change for true education reform to take place. But better resources matter. Enter Rice University. Its OpenStax College initiative tries to address the problem of source fragmentation. In other words, resources, resources everywhere but no time to synch may be less of a problem than it has been so far. One nice touch is format flexibility: web, e-textbook, or hard copy options are available. “The first five textbooks in the series–Physics, Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology–have been completed, and the Physics and Sociology textbooks are up at openstaxcollege.org. The model is curious:

Using philanthropic funding, Baraniuk and the team behind OpenStax contracted professional content developers to write the books, and each book went through the industry-standard review cycle, including peer review and classroom testing. The books are scope- and sequence-compatible with traditional textbooks, and they contain all of the ancillary materials such as PowerPoint slides, test banks, and homework solutions.

So there is professional level seeding of content while also allowing for wiki-like contribution:

Each book has its own dashboard, called StaxDash. Along with displaying institutions that have adopted the book, StaxDash is also a real-time erratum tracker: Faculty who are using the books are encouraged to submit errors or problems they’ve found in the text. “There’s also the issue of pointing out aspects of the text that need to be updated,” notes Baraniuk, “for example, keeping the Sociology book up-to-date as the Arab Spring continues to evolve. People can post these issues, and our pledge is that we are going to fix any issues as close to ‘in real time’ as possible. These books will be up-to-date in a matter of hours or days instead of years.” When accessing a book through its URL on Connexions, students and faculty will always get the most up-to-date version of the book. Faculty can, however, use the “version control” feature on Connexions to lock in a particular version of the book for use throughout a semester.

If you thought that keeping up with authoritative versions of an ebook and citing it (trust me it is odd to cite to a location in a Kindle book) was messy, this new model will throw you. Then again, that is a small issue.

Group contributions for the latest on an issue and the ability to choose versions is a great idea. Law texts that could update the latest cases or a change in legislation as they happen and then be refined overtime would be wonderful. Of course teachers use other ways to reach these goals. But if crowds/commons style approaches to texts work, we may see better and less expensive versions of textbooks. How the system will mangage disputes about content and education boards’ issues with approval remains to be seen. Still, the promise of this approach should make the miasmic aspects of education boards look silly and create a press for improved ways to have quality content available for educators and most important, for students.

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Of Law and Self-Loathing

“I’m a self-loathing law student,” confessed one of the students in my Critical Race Theory seminar this week. Several others immediately owned up to the same affliction. I will stipulate that self-loathing is probably not an affect we all should strive to achieve. But I was heartened anyway.

Twenty-five years ago when I began teaching law, my social-justice-minded students regularly veered from rage and tears at moral wrongs to a defiant hope. They sustained themselves and one another with a faith that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as Dr. King is thought to have said. And they ultimately placed their trust in law and especially the courts.

My students were not alone. Even by the mid-1980s, many of us lawyers and law professors were still recovering from the collective daze of delight induced by the Second Reconstruction and the Warren and Burger Court eras. Of course, we were already in the throes of affirmative-action backlash and judicial retrenchment; colorblind constitutionalism was shaped before our very eyes; and even as a law student I had studied Harris v. McRae in my equal protection class and learned that the formal declaration of a constitutional right is not the same as the economic security needed to exercise it. Yet the romance, the belief that getting the courts to pronounce a legal right was a mighty blow for justice, lingered on.

Maybe it was the continued influence of the post-war “idea of America as a normative concept,” as Edward Purcell  put it in 1973: the incorporation throughout social and political debate of “terms that were analytically confused but morally coercive – patriotism, Americanism, free enterprise system, mission, and, most grossly, ‘we’re number one.’” In the culture of legal academia, this logic translated into a faith in the jurisprudence of legal process. In my little corner of the world we were all reading Democracy and Distrust and trying to locate neutral principles. The faith that procedural fairness, at least, could be achieved despite a lack of consensus about the good life reinforced a belief in the American rule of law as an unshakable bulwark of democratic fairness. That sentiment was entwined with a professional loyalty to the law: to have gone to law school was in itself a statement about one’s commitment to the law as the royal (I mean “democratic”) road to justice.

So when critical legal studies, feminist legal theory, and then critical race theory hit the academy around this time, the crits (like the Legal Realists before them) were accused of “nihilism” and shown the door. Critical legal theory was not just a disloyalty to the civil rights movement but to the rule of law itself. It was subversive, in those mid-1980s days, to pass around The Hollow Hope  and to insist, as the crits were loudly doing, that “reification” and “legitimation” were basic functions of legal reasoning. The trust that the system works – or, at least, could work if we got it right – was now being dubbed “legal liberalism” by the crits, and being skewered in massively long and ponderous articles about fundamental contradictions. But the critics could be challenged by asking them where their “positive program” was. And they could (sometimes) be silenced by demands that they leave the law altogether.

For the crit project seemed deeply and radically anti-law. We junior professors, reading their work and sometimes contributing to it, felt like outlaws (which brought with it a sense of being dangerous and cool, along with a sense of vulnerability heightened by our lack of tenure and the material consequences of being perceived as a nihilist). At the same time, interestingly, the practice of teaching was not too different for us as it was for our older Legal Process colleagues. It was all about puncturing our students’ illusions, showing them the indeterminacy of legal reasoning and teaching them how to surf on it, questioning the use of words like “fairness.” It was just that we had no shining neutral-principles machine to lift from the bottom of Pandora’s box at the end of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that legal liberalism and faith in the rule of law as central to the American way ever died. At a conference at Santa Clara Law School last week on race and sexuality, some of the lawyers and academics gathered there bemoaned a “politics of civil rights” that has somehow placed marriage equality at the top of the LGBT agenda. The charge was familiar: too many lawyers and non-lawyers alike believe that “gay is the new black;” that the civil rights movement brought about racial equality and “now it’s our turn;” that if we prove we are just like them, we’ll all be free. The rush to assimilate to mainstream institutions and practices throws under the bus, as usual, those most vulnerable to premature death – those without the racial, economic, and bodily privileges (and/or the desire) to get married, move to the suburbs, and blend in.

What was different was that an alternative position, the “politics of dispossession” as Marc Spindelman named it, was also on the table – not as a stance that made one’s commitment to the law suspect from the get-go, but as an accepted ground for lawyering. When thinking about sexuality we might want to begin, under this politics, not with marriage but with the kids doing sex work on International Boulevard in Oakland, as Margaret Russell pointed out. And, after decades of critical theory, it was taken as a truth in that room — if an inconvenient one — that to do this would mean instantly coming up against poverty, racism, and violence, forms of suffering law is not well positioned to ameliorate.

In this way, lawyering for social justice is a contradiction. Not in the “nihilist” sense, the law-as-a-tool-of-the-ruling-class notion that those who want justice ought to give up their bar cards and go protest in the streets. (My friend Norma Alarcón once identified this romantic position as the desire to “be out in the jungle with Che.”) Rather, the politics of dispossession begins with recognizing that the law is not designed to go to root causes; that fundamental changes in the ground rules, which is what the most vulnerable need, come from organizing;  and that lawyering isn’t useless, but that it looks different if it is prison abolition you want and not a marriage license.

More abstractly, the understanding in that room was that, as Patricia Williams said to the crits in one of the founding texts of critical race theory, law is both inadequate and indispensable in the struggle for justice. Post-legal-liberalism lawyering begins here.

What’s also new is that this commitment to living in the contradiction — accepting the tension between law and justice as a place to work rather than as a source of despair — is increasingly expressed not only by battle-scarred veterans at academic conferences but by law students. The desire to make positive social change has not gone away among my students. They still hope and expect that law can be used in the service of justice. But along with a waning of faith in the courts, they express an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the limits of the law more generally. They know, already, that justice and law are not the same. The task is no longer disillusioning them, but helping them develop the skills for finding what works and what doesn’t.

Okay, so “self-loathing” is probably not the best way to say it. But this wry recognition of the imperfection of law seems to me nevertheless an improvement over the wounded attachment to law as a portal to justice that seemed to mark so many progressive law students a generation ago. As the same student said later in the conversation that day, “That’s my contradiction, and I’m sticking to it.” There’s a wisdom there that’s heartening.

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After a Year of Teaching

Yesterday began the last week of my first year of teaching. I taught Civil Procedure and Criminal Procedure as a Visiting Assistant Professor, so a colleague dubbed me the “Pro Prof.” There is still so much more to understand about becoming a challenging, inspiring, and effective professor, but I doubt I’ll learn in any other year the amount I learned in these two semesters. So, for the purpose of comparing notes with other professors, here are a few reflections accumulated after a thoroughly enjoyable year of professing.

1. Teaching is about balance. It’s necessary to find the optimal balance of informality (students tend to participate more and have more fun in a relaxed learning environment) with authority. There’s a balance of writing out notes but not wedding yourself to them. I also had to balance making deliberate choices about the kind of professor I wanted to be (modeling humbly after my law school professors) with the inevitable facts about who I am. When you speak for 1.5 hours in front of a classroom, your actual personality inevitably emerges. It turns out, I’ll never be as tough as Professor Kingsfield, but I can force myself to look disapproving if a student’s cell phone accidentally rings during class, and I can challenge students through my fervent, yet compassionate, Socratic questioning.

2. What excites the students will surprise you. It takes a few weeks with a new class to learn which types of questions, and which ways of phrasing/posing questions, will promote the best classroom discussions. Just because I am interested in the theories behind each rule of Civil Procedure doesn’t mean my students wouldn’t rather discuss whether a plaintiff can aggregate the claims of conjoined twins to meet the amount in controversy (this was an actual hypothetical a student posed in my class). That said, don’t give up on trying to get the students to come around to what excites you about the law.

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Why I Don’t Teach the Privacy Torts in My Privacy Law Class

(Partial disclaimer — I do teach the privacy torts for part of one class, just so the students realize how narrow they are.)

I was talking the other day with Chris Hoofnagle, a co-founder of the Privacy Law Scholars Conference and someone I respect very much.  He and I have both recently taught Privacy Law using the text by Dan Solove and Paul Schwartz. After the intro chapter, the text has a humongous chapter 2 about the privacy torts, such as intrusion on seclusion, false light, public revelation of private facts, and so on.  Chris and other profs I have spoken with find that the chapter takes weeks to teach.

I skip that chapter entirely. In talking with Chris, I began to articulate why.  It has to do with my philosophy of what the modern privacy enterprise is about.

For me, the modern project about information privacy is pervasively about IT systems.  There are lots of times we allow personal information to flow.  There are lots of times where it’s a bad idea.  We build our collection and dissemination systems in highly computerized form, trying to gain the advantages while minimizing the risks.  Alan Westin got it right when he called his 1970’s book “Databanks in a Free Society.”  It’s about the data.

Privacy torts aren’t about the data.  They usually are individualized revelations in a one-of-a-kind setting.  Importantly, the reasonableness test in tort is a lousy match for whether an IT system is well designed.  Torts have not done well at building privacy into IT systems, nor have they been of much use in other IT system issues, such as deciding whether an IT system is unreasonably insecure or suing software manufacturers under products liability law.  IT systems are complex and evolve rapidly, and are a terrible match with the common sense of a jury trying to decide if the defendant did some particular thing wrong.

When privacy torts don’t work, we substitute regulatory systems, such as HIPAA or Gramm-Leach-Bliley.  To make up for the failures of the intrusion tort, we create the Do Not Call list and telemarketing sales rules that precisely define how much intrusion the marketer can make into our time at home with the family.

A second reason for skipping the privacy torts is that the First Amendment has rendered unconstitutional a wide range of the practices that the privacy torts might otherwise have evolved to address.  Lots of intrusive publication about an individual is considered “newsworthy” and thus protected speech.  The Europeans have narrower free speech rights, so they have somewhat more room to give legal effect to intrusion and public revelation claims.

It’s about the data.  Torts has almost nothing to say about what data should flow in IT systems.  So I skip the privacy torts.

Other profs might have other goals.  But I expect to keep skipping chapter 2.

 

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Teaching Sexual Assault

This week, I began teaching the unit on sexual assault to my Criminal Law class. I – untenured, female, and in my second year of teaching – walked into my classroom and wrote “carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will” on the chalkboard, thus beginning a two week exploration of the law of rape. Am I brave? Am I foolish? Or am I simply doing what I am supposed to do as a Criminal Law professor?

A couple of senior professors from other law schools had advised me not to cover sexual assault as part of my Criminal Law class at all. It was too risky, I was told. And this is generally true. All classes have an element of risk and uncertainty: one can never be quite sure how any given class is going to turn out on any given day. The most beautifully constructed notes containing the most carefully (and charmingly!) written lecture can produce quizzical looks, yawns, and dead silence during the discussion period; meanwhile, those notes that might as well have been written on napkins during the faculty meeting that preceded the class can produce the most brilliant, Socratic unveiling of that hard-to-understand, but oh-so-fundamental concept. So, yeah: there’s uncertainty built into all classes. But, the uncertainty associated with teaching sexual assault is terrifying. Will my question about the mens rea of nonconsent yield a response that indicates that one of my students has been accused of rape? Will another response indicate that another student has been raped? Will a screaming match break out? Will someone break down in tears? Will that person be me?

I have my strategies, though: first, I avoid any attempts at humor during the unit, which is a departure from my approach to the rest of the class. Criminal Law frequently involves people doing horrible things to other people. The fact patterns of the cases are awful much of the time. So, as a professor, one could go into the classroom and lament man’s inhumanity to fellow man for an hour and a half; or, one could treat it like a dark comedy. I typically choose the latter. I prefer the Fargo approach to the There Will Be Blood approach … except during the unit on sexual assault. During those weeks, I am Daniel Day-Lewis as a turn-of-the-century oil prospector. (Interestingly, even dark comedies tend not to make light of sexual assault. People are killed all the time in dark comedies; but they are infrequently raped. If they are (think of Ving Rhames’ character in Pulp Fiction), the rape scenes are not supposed to be funny; they are supposed to be horrifying.)

My second strategy: instead of calling on students at random, I only call on volunteers. But, I am not entirely comfortable with this strategy. Undeniably: rape is terrible, and talking about it can make some people profoundly uncomfortable. But, you know what else is terrible? Murder. Voluntary manslaughter – which involves case after case of men experiencing sometimes adequate/sometimes inadequate provocation and killing their wives – is terrible, too. Yet, I do not hesitate to call on students randomly during the homicide unit. Some Constitutional Law professors tell me that, during their units on abortion (and definitely on the day that they teach Gonzales v. Carhart, if they teach it at all), they only call on volunteers. The exceptions that professors are willing to make to their usual pedagogy might be a bit problematic. Both abortion and sexual assault are gendered subjects. Is there something about topics that disproportionately and distinctly affect women that makes it appropriate to remove them from normal classroom procedure? One cannot argue that professors make these exceptions with respect to abortion and sexual assault because these topics are especially controversial. You know what else is controversial? Same-sex sodomy. Also controversial: affirmative action. But, the professors whom I have come across do not make exceptions to their practice of cold-calling when they teach Lawrence v. Texas or Grutter. (Indeed, I feel for the student who is a racial minority and who is called upon to be Socratically drilled about Grutter. A sufficiently competent performance may exonerate him or her from an implicit accusation that he or she is a beneficiary of the very program upheld in Grutter. And a bad performance? Well, that’s pretty good evidence that Justice Thomas was absolutely correct in that vigorous dissent….) So, why should we, as professors, be especially sensitive about abortion and sexual assault? Does our sensitivity construct women as especially sensitive? Or does it reflect the belief that crimes against women and gendered issues such as reproductive rights are Other?

Nevertheless, I shall adhere to my strategies, and I shall humorlessly and sensitively teach my students the law of sexual assault. And I shall sigh a huge sigh of relief when the unit is over and we can move on to lighter things – like Bernie Goetz shooting four, young, unarmed racial minorities on a New York City subway. [sigh]

Lombardo on Legal Archaeology

Paul A. Lombardo published an essay “Legal Archaeology: Recovering the Stories behind the Cases” in the Fall 2008 issue of the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics.  It reminded me of the wonderful chapters in this volume of “health law stories.”  Here are some excerpts that may be of interest: 

 Every lawsuit is a potential drama: a story of conflict, often with victims and villains, leading to justice done or denied. Yet a great deal, if not all, that we learn about the most noteworthy of lawsuits — the truly great cases — comes from reading the opinion of an appellate court, written by a judge who never saw the parties of the case, who worked at a time and a place far removed from the events that gave rise to litigation.

Rarely do we admit that the official factual account contained in an appellate opinion may have only the most tenuous relationship to the events that actually led the parties to court. The complex stories — turning on small facts, seemingly trivial circumstances, and inter-contingent events — fade away as the “case” takes on a life of its own as it leaves the court of appeals.

How can a law professor correct this bias?  Here are some of Lombardo’s suggestions: 

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