Contract and Innovation: The Limited Role of Generalist Courts in the Evolution of Novel Contractual Forms

April
2013
Ronald J. Gilson, Charles F. Sabel & Robert E. Scott

In developing a contractual response to changes in the economic environment, parties choose the method by which their innovation will be adapted to the particulars of their context. These choices are driven centrally by the thickness of the relevant market—the number of actors who see themselves as facing similar circumstances— and the uncertainty related to that market. In turn, the parties’ choice of method will shape how generalist courts can best support the parties’ innovation and the novel regimes they envision. In this Article, we argue that contractual innovation does not come to courts incrementally, but instead reaches courts later in the innovation’s evolution and more fully developed than the standard picture contemplates. Highly stylized, the trajectory of innovation in contract we find is this: Private actors respond to exogenous shocks in their economic environments by changing existing structures or procedures to make them efficient under the new circumstances. The innovating parties stabilize their newly emergent practices through a variety of regimes—both bilateral and multilateral—with the goal of establishing the context through which the innovation is implemented. It is only at this point, and when a dispute is presented to them, that courts step in. If contract innovation does indeed reach generalist courts through the mediating institution of these contextualizing regimes, then our argument follows directly: Because a central goal of contract adjudication is to enforce the agreement in the context the parties intended, the courts’ willingness to defer to the context provided by the parties will put the law more directly in the service of innovation.

This article appears in the April 2013 Issue: Volume 88, Number 1
Topic(s):