Carving Up Contracts

butcher.jpgI’ve been spending the day carving up my Contracts course. This coming year, Temple, following in the footsteps of many law schools, is transitioning from a two-semester, six-credit, glorious romp through the law of contracts to a one-semester, four-credit, forced march.

This isn’t a data point, it’s a trend. There is an article to be written – perhaps it has been? – about the long, slow, decline of the year-long first year course. While a generation ago, most courses were taught in the year format, today only a few schools have as many as one course taught this way. [I myself had year-long civil procedure and criminal law classes, but we were the only section at school so blessed.] For some reason, until recently contracts had been the holdout. Why? My preferred theory is that the course is uniquely complicated and foundational. Or, you might believe that contracts is so doctrinally incoherent that it demands more attention. Or, perhaps, it was Kingsfield‘s ghost.

So I’m cutting away. First, the fat of the class: cases marbled through with neat applications to other classes, wonderful diversions of history and policy, but not totally dedicated to the project of determining when and how to enforce promises. Tortious interference and the Texaco case? Gone. The restitution interest? Mostly ignored. Farewell as well to agency, third-party bennies, assignment and delegation, duress, incompetency, and infancy.

But that wasn’t enough. So, with a heavy heart, I’ve started to trim closer to the bone. Less interpretation and parol evidence, (much) less consideration, and now barely a touch on relational theory and impracticability. A consolation prize: I get to cut most of my promissory estoppel unit in good conscience. Good riddance!

Of course, I realize that the entire first year curriculum has experienced this loss over time, and law students have reaped compensatory benefits: electives in various subjects, less focus on common law instruction, more skills courses, and a greater variety of teachers in the first year. All to the good. But I can’t help thinking that each of the grand old first year subjects has lost a case (or a facet of its subject matter) to shrinkage, and (as a result, hypothesizes Larry Solum?) some areas of law aren’t getting the scholarly focus they used to. I know it isn’t a big tragedy for law students to graduate without having learned a thing about the infancy defense to a breach of contract action, but just now, as I cut that concept from my notes, it feels like a small one. And I’ve only taught the course twice through. Imagine if I’d gotten really attached!

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5 Responses

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    Wow, that’s quite a list. The single most interesting thing I recall learning about in my 1-semester contracts class was what we called “Section 90 reliance,” a/k/a promissory estoppel. That and the two ships Peerless, which was great just for the humor value. And the Arthur Miller Dance Studios case. OK, I remember a lot of different things, but promissory estoppel was right up there.

    Also I believe third-party beneficiaries came up my year on the bar exam, but I guess that’s what bar review is for.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    Errrm, I meant Arthur *Murray* Dance Studios. Although Arthur Miller Dance Studios would be an interesting idea…

  3. Nate Oman says:

    The section 90 obsession is SOOOO 1978. Contract is not dead — it is devouring torts and other fields.

  4. Anderson says:

    Ole Miss still does con law, torts and contracts in a full year. Civ Pro is a year but for some reason is split between 1L and 2L.

    Of course, the provinces are slowest to catch up …

  5. Dave Hoffman says:

    Bruce: Rest assured. Dancing and peerless are still in the course. And I believe that Arthur Miller, who taught me civ pro in the year long format, does an excellent tango. Kidding. But he sure could teach!

    Nate: I’m with you. Which is why PE is down to two days. The highlight is Hoffman v. Red Owl, for obvious reasons.

    Anderson: I wonder if keeping the longer subjects is a feature of state-sponsored law schools, who (might) feel some responsibility for teaching state-specific common law in the first-year.