Automating Contract Law

George S. Geis

The study of contract law is undergoing a difficult transition as it moves from the theoretical to the empirical. Over the past few decades scholars have focused largely on developing economic theories that offer a normative approach to setting the legal rules governing voluntary exchange. The time has now come to test whether these theories provide a meaningful basis for choosing our laws—in other words, to ask whether empirical data supports the theoretical models that contracts scholars have posited. Unfortunately, this type of empirical analysis has proven exceptionally difficult to conduct, and some commentators are beginning to question whether it will ever be possible to test and revise our economic theories of contract in a meaningful manner. Yet the problem of harnessing information to support complex decisions is not unique to contract law. This Essay explores the possibility that recent technological developments from the field of organizational knowledge management—including advances in meaning-based computing algorithms—will soon make it easier to conduct empirical work in contract law on a much larger scale.

Contract Design and the Structure of Contractual Intent

Jody S. Kraus, Robert E. Scott

Modern contract law is governed by a two-stage adjudicative regime—an inheritance of the centuries-old conflict between law and equity. Under this regime, formal contract terms are treated as prima facie provisions that courts can override by invoking equitable doctrines so as to substantially “correct” the parties’ contract by realigning it with their contractual intent. This ex post judicial determination of the contractual obligation serves as a fallback mechanism for vindicating the parties’ contractual intent whenever the formal contract terms fall short of achieving the parties’ purposes. Honoring the contractual intent of the parties is thus the central objective of contract law. Yet little scholarly attention has been given to the structure of contractual intent. Courts naturally equate contractual intent with the parties’ contractual objectives, which we call the “contractual ends” of their collaboration. But reaching agreement on a shared objective is only the first step to designing an enforceable contract. Thereafter, the parties must create the particular rights and duties that will serve as their “contractual means” for achieving their shared ends. The thesis of this Article argues that the current regime of contract adjudication conflates the parties’ contractual means with their contractual ends. In so doing, it reduces the range of contractual arrangements to which contract law gives effect, thereby potentially depriving commercially sophisticated parties of essential tools for contract design. Sophisticated actors engage in ex ante determinations of their means of enforcement, choosing whether enforcement is to be either legal or relational and whether legal enforcement should rely on either rules or standards. Both theory and available evidence suggest that such parties would prefer a default rule that strictly enforces formal contract doctrine unless they have expressly indicated their intent to delegate hindsight authority to a court. By eliminating the risk that courts will erroneously infer the parties’ preference for ex post judicial intervention, such a regime increases the reliability of formal contract terms and enhances the parties’ control over the content of their contract.

In Search of an Enforceable Medical Malpractice Exculpatory Agreement: Introducing Confidential Contracts as a Solution to the Doctor-Patient Relationship Problem

Matthew J.B. Lawrence

Scholars have argued that the malpractice system would be better off if patients had the option of waiving the right to sue for malpractice in exchange for a lower fee. Some doctors have tried to follow this advice by having their patients sign medical malpractice exculpatory agreements, but courts usually have refused to enforce these agreements, invoking a void-for-public-policy rationale. This Note argues that a doctor could maximize the odds that a court would enforce her medical malpractice exculpatory agreement by somehow ensuring that she will never find out whether her patient decided to sign. A case study of the law in New York highlights the ambiguity in the void-for-public-policy rationale as to whether the simple fact that the doctor-patient relationship is implicated in a medical malpractice contract is fatal to enforcement, or whether such a contract could be enforced if it were nonadhesive and clearly worded. A behavioral-economic analysis of the patient’s decision to sign a medical malpractice exculpatory agreement reveals a reason why the agreements may be categorically barred: Some patients might unwillingly agree to sign for fear of signaling distrust or litigiousness to their doctors. A confidential contract—in which the offeror never knew whether the offeree had accepted or not—would avoid this signaling effect. A provider using such a contract could distinguish those cases in which the doctor-patient relationship alone seemed to justify nonenforcement as not involving this prophylactic measure.

Disciplining Standard Form Contract Terms Through Online Information Flows: An Empirical Study

Nishanth V. Chari

Standard Form Contracts (SFCs) are at the heart of an ongoing debate among legal and empirical scholars about the extent to which market forces serve to discipline sellers into providing fair contract terms. Scholars have long assumed that consumers do not read SFCs ex ante (e.g., at the time of purchase or installation) but have generally left open the possibility that consumers might read SFCs ex post (e.g., if there is a breakdown in service or functionality). This Note examines empirically the extent to which online product ratings might serve as a conduit of information regarding contract terms from ex post to ex ante consumers. Comparing online product ratings from and with software license agreements graded according to a contract bias index, I find that product ratings on surprisingly bear a negative correlation with contract bias. That is, more highly rated products tend to come bundled with more pro-seller terms. My results suggest that while product ratings may contain information about contract terms, this information is not conveyed in a way that is useful to ex ante consumers and, accordingly, is unlikely to discipline sellers. This Note thus provides guidance for future research and policy initiatives seeking to explore ways to discipline sellers into providing fairer and more efficient contract terms.

The Federal Arbitration Act as Procedural Reform

Hiro N. Aragaki

Recent Supreme Court decisions such as American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304 (2013), and AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), represent dramatic developments with implications that extend far beyond the arbitration context. These decisions are a product of what the author refers to as the “contract model” of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Heretofore largely unquestioned, the contract model posits the FAA’s original and dominant purpose as the promotion of private ordering in dispute resolution, as free as possible from state regulation. The model has, in turn, helped courts and commentators claim that the FAA requires arbitration agreements to be enforced strictly “according to their terms”—without regard to the way those agreements might compromise procedural values, such as when they preclude classwide relief.

This Article questions both the descriptive accuracy and normative persuasiveness of the contract model. It argues that when placed in their proper historical context, the FAA’s text and legislative history appear equally consistent (if not more so) with a purpose to improve upon the widely discussed procedural failings of the courts circa 1925. From this standpoint, the FAA can be understood as an offshoot of ongoing efforts at the time to reform procedure in the federal courts—efforts spearheaded by figures such as Roscoe Pound and Charles E. Clark, and that eventually culminated in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938. The FAA, in short, was arguably a type of procedural reform.

These insights lead the author to propose a “procedural reform” model of the FAA, one that he contends is both more faithful to the statute’s history (legislative and otherwise) and more adept at answering the difficult questions that confront arbitration law in the age of “contract procedure.” The author considers two recent examples to illustrate.

From Promise to Form: How Contracting Online Changes Consumers

David A. Hoffman

I hypothesize that different experiences with online contracting have led some consumers to see contracts—both online and offline—in distinctive ways. Experimenting on a large, nationally representative sample, this paper provides evidence of age-based and experience-based differences in views of consumer contract formation and breach. I show that younger subjects who have entered into more online contracts are likelier than older ones to think that contracts can be formed online, that digital contracts are legitimate while oral contracts are not, and that contract law is unforgiving of breach.

I argue that such individual differences in views of contract formation and enforceability might lead firms to discriminate among consumers. There is some evidence that businesses are already using variance in views of contract to induce consumers to purchase goods they would not otherwise have. I conclude by suggesting how the law might respond to such behavior.

Interpreting Contracts via Surveys and Experiments

Omri Ben-Shahar, Lior Jacob Strahilevitz

Interpreting the language of contracts may be the most common and least satisfactory task courts perform in contract disputes. This Article proposes to take much of this task out of the hands of lawyers and judges, entrusting it instead to the public. The Article develops and tests a novel regime—the “survey interpretation method”—in which interpretation disputes are resolved through large surveys of representative respondents, by choosing the meaning that a majority supports. This Article demonstrates the rich potential for this method to examine variations of contractual language that could have made an intended meaning clearer. A similar survey regime has been applied successfully in trademark and unfair competition law for decades to interpret precontractual messages, and this Article shows how it could be extended to interpret contractual texts. The Article focuses on the interpretation of consumer contracts as the primary application of the proposed method, but demonstrates how the method could also apply to contracts between sophisticated parties. To demonstrate the technique, this Article applies the survey interpretation method to five real cases in which courts struggled to interpret contracts. It then provides normative, pragmatic, and doctrinal support for the proposed regime.

Material Adverse Effects as Buyer-Friendly Standard

Y. Carson Zhou

Commentators often remark that Material Adverse Effects (MAE) Clauses are difficult to successfully invoke. Indeed, the Delaware Court of Chancery stated in Hexion that “Delaware courts have never found a material adverse effect to have occurred in the context of a merger agreement.” But commentators’ preoccupation with the high legal hurdle for establishing an MAE at trial understates the ways in which the existing case law favors buyers during pretrial motions and settlement negotiations. This Article argues that the Delaware standard for establishing an MAE favors buyers at the pretrial phase by making it easier for buyers to drag out litigation in order to force sellers to agree to a renegotiated deal price. The Article then discusses the implications for dealmakers.

Y. Carson Zhou, Material Adverse Effects as Buyer-Friendly Standard, 91 N.Y.U. L. Rev. Online 171 (2016).

Set in Stone? Change and Innovation in Consumer Standard-Form Contracts

Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, Robert Taylor

Standard-form contracting is the engine of the mass-market economy, yet we know little about what drives it and what factors are associated with its evolution. Understanding change and innovation of the substance, length, and complexity of fine print in the consumer context can help regulators identify sources of potential intervention as well as help them evaluate the effectiveness of mandatory disclosure regimes, which are commonly used as consumer protection tools. This Article studies the rate, direction, and determinants of change in consumer standard-form contracting. We examine what changed between 2003 and 2010 in the terms of 264 mass-market consumer software license agreements. Thirty-nine percent of contracts materially changed at least one term, and some changed as many as fourteen terms. The average contract became more pro-seller as well as several hundred words longer. The increase in length is not due to the use of simpler language. Contract readability has been constant: The average contract is as readable as an article in a scientific journal. The variance of contract length has grown, as has the variance in overall pro-seller bias, resulting in reduced contract standardization over time. Firms that were younger, larger, or growing, as well as firms with inhouse counsel, were more likely to change existing terms and to introduce new terms to take advantage of technological and market developments. Contracts appear to respond to litigation outcomes: Terms that were increasingly enforced by courts were more frequently used in contracts, and vice-versa. The results indicate that software license agreements are relatively dynamic and shaped by multiple factors over time. We discuss potential consumer protection implications as a result of the increased length and complexity of contracts over time.

Innovation and the Organizational Contract: Lessons from Income Trusts

Edward M. Iacobucci

This Article investigates why North American businesses typically do not adopt the trust form, other than as a financing vehicle. It examines an episode in Canada in which the trust form became very popular amongst publicly traded businesses. Until 2006, there were significant tax advantages associated with adopting an “income trust” structure. Regardless of the tax motivations for the form, the income trust offered businesses greater flexibility in choosing their governance rules than that offered by the corporate form. Income trusts often took advantage of this flexibility, deviating from mandatory corporate law rules on a number of dimensions. This Article finds that there were positive market reactions to innovations in governance by income trusts. However, once the law changed to remove the tax advantages of income trusts, the form all but ceased to be adopted—despite relatively low costs of adoption. On balance, this Article suggests that innovative trust structures are not especially valuable from a pure governance perspective, though governance innovations may be valuable if combined with tax advantages.