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Is Contract Theory Useful?

Everyone understands that learning Contract Law involves learning doctrine or rules about how contracts work. But why learn the theory behind the rules? Professor Randy Barnett argues that the best lawyers not only understand the rules but grasp the reasoning behind the rules which enables them to better apply the rules in a particular situation. https://youtube.com/watch?v=iyN5sF21AMs


Contract law, like all law, operates on 3 different levels - it operates on the level of theory, of doctrine, and of practice. Doctrine are the rules of contract law that most students expect to learn when they go to law school. When you say, "What'd you go to law school to learn?" They say, "I went to law school to learn the law." And you ask them what they mean by the law, they mean, it's the rules. Well, the rules are what I'm calling contract doctrine, like the doctrine of consideration, like the defenses of fraud or duress or incapacitation. Those are all contract law doctrines. But, to understand contract law, you also have to operate at the level of theory. What's contract law theory? Theory is the rationale for why we have the doctrines we have. It's the explanation for why those doctrines have developed the way they have. And what is the relationship of each doctrine to the other, rather than simply memorizing a list of rules. If you understand the theory or basic structure of contract law, you'll understand, you'll better understand, and be able to appreciate why those rules exist and how they work. Finally, there's the element of practice, the level of practice, and that is applying the doctrine to the facts of particular cases. That's one of the reasons why contract law is typically taught using the case method, which is studying a series of canonical famous contracts, cases that present memorable fact patterns that everybody remembers even after law school, because it's by applying the doctrine to the facts, you don't apply the theory to the facts. You apply the doctrine to the facts. That is what helps you understand how the doctrines work. What the practice of law is based on is a deeper understanding of the structure of the body of law you become expert on and understanding that structure is really understanding the theory of that subject, not just the individual rules, but when you understand that structure, when you have an intuitive grasp of the theory, the rules make such sense that, a) you don't forget that. And, b) you can even predict what they're going to say without looking them up. You won't be right a hundred percent of the time, but you'll be right a lot. And that is you say," Well look, this is what makes sense, given what I know about the structure of the law." And then you go out and you do the research and you find out sure enough, the rules correspond with that logic because that's how they got to be there. So really the best lawyers are the lawyers that have either an intuitive or conscious grasp of the deeper structure of the law that they're experts on which really means they have a grasp of the underlying theory. That's why students need to be exposed and grasp the theory along with the doctrines. It's going to help them remember the doctrines, and it's going to help them predict what those doctrines are. Even before they look them up.

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