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Monthly Archives: May 2017

Studying Specific Performance

Yonathan A. Arbel, Contract Remedies in Action: Specific Performance, 118 W. Va. L. Rev. 100 (2015), available at SSRN.

Parties that have a right to the very thing promised in a contract may opt not to have it delivered by the breaching party through specific performance. Even when the promised item is unique, the plaintiff may choose not to enforce the remedy. Why? Is it too difficult to execute the remedy? Are motivations mixed? Do lawyers advise clients to pursue money damages over specific performance? Will the breaching party behave in good faith when complying with the order? Professor Yonathan Arbel, former managing editor of the New Private Law Blog, offers a fascinating qualitative study of this underexamined issue. He explores why a contractual party that has established a right to the remedy of specific performance might opt out of the preferred remedy. Despite having a proven right to this coveted remedy, he shows why plaintiffs may choose not to force the breaching party to perform as promised. This, he claims, is true notwithstanding the “notoriously” under-compensatory nature of expectancy damages in comparison to specific performance.

Remedies and substance are intertwined. Professor Ariel Porat, in a Remedies chapter in the forthcoming Handbook of Law and Economics, declares that “[a]nalyzing the substantive law without its remedial part is almost meaningless.” Understanding remedial options and goals is essential. Professor Arbel’s work thoughtfully analyzes contract law’s pinnacle remedy of specific performance and the goals it serves. He then critically examines contract’s law primary competing theories—economic and rights-based conceptions—in light of parties’ actual behavior regarding specific performance. His treatment describes what parties actually do when confronted with the option of specific performance in the real world. His qualitative approach explores their practices “‘from the inside,’ tracking the internal view of litigants and their lawyers.”

The heart of Professor Arbel’s article centers on his findings from interviews with lawyers and their clients who were engaged in specific performance litigation. For the qualitative analysis, he uses a comparable legal system, but one where specific performance is the default remedy: Israel. The interesting findings are inconsistent with the two main contract theories: A utilitarian may view specific performance as a bargaining chip to extract more money from the breaching party, while a rights-based advocate may view the remedy as the ultimate vindication of the value of promise-keeping. In part, Professor Arbel opines that the growing empirical data to prove these theories relies upon faulty assumptions. For example, the theorists omit plaintiff’s remedial choices, assume parities will negotiate execution of the order, and fail to appreciate real-world motivations and implementation challenges.

The interviews reveal the complexity that lies beneath. Though not all plaintiffs opt out of this powerful remedy, significant numbers do abstain at various stages: (i) prejudgment, (ii) post-judgment renegotiation, and (iii) ultimate execution. Pursuing a remedy via the court system takes time. Reaching the desired judicial remedy via litigation suspends the parties in an adversarial posture, which may linger post-trial when it is time to execute the special performance decree. Attaining the promised performance may entail further negotiations, and plaintiff’s preference may alter over time. Such orders require good faith in implementation, despite lack of standards or court supervisory means to ensure high quality compliance. In the face of bad faith or even simply delay, plaintiff must choose whether to spend energy and money to demand compliance. Most interviewees reported real challenges enforcing specific performance. Contempt may be ineffective if defendant lacks funds. Plaintiff may be left to leverage defendant’s reputation or rely on social norms—both valuable tools but not full proof in operation.

Professor Arbel also seeks to bridge the binary nature of the two theoretical dialogues. He suggests the economics-minded align assumptions with actual practice—for example, a decree does not equate to receipt of actual performance as promised. For the rights-based theorists, he recommends they consider the strategic and utilitarian motivations plaintiffs demonstrate in the process. Per Arbel’s findings, a plaintiff may choose specific performance prejudgment to signal the strength of the case, minimize costs and delays, and leverage renegotiation after judgment. Both would be well served to enhance their exploration with the possibilities that these real-world findings signify.

Importantly, Professor Arbel maintains that to best protect nonbreaching parties, both theoretical schools should give plaintiff the option between specific performance and expectation damages. Ethical rules must guide lawyers to avoid self-serving advice. But even assuming sage advice, Professor Arbel warns that judges shouldn’t trust plaintiffs to choose wisely, which may necessitate judges exercising broad discretion to craft the remedial award. This harkens back to equitable cleanup jurisdiction in the United States in which the judge would render complete justice, including damages in lieu, should specific performance become unavailable or impossible. What about other possible remedies beyond compensation if specific performance is unattainable: for certain breaches of contract, should plaintiffs also be able to disgorge defendant’s unjust gains? See here, here, and here. Both the United States and Israel permit a disgorgement gain-based remedy for breaches of contract when appropriate. That is a topic for another day, but more research along the lines Professor Arbel conducts would go far in servicing the very goals that the substantive law of contract aims to attain.

Overall, Professor Arbel seeks to contextualize contract theory, break the stalemate between instrumental and deontological stances, and stimulate the collection of more data with larger samples. His article successfully contextualizes the debate, but only time will tell on the other two aims. It is my hope that he and the scholarly community will succeed on all three goals. Fine-tuning data to context and linking theory to practice will sharpen the theoretical debate and aid plaintiffs in achieving optimal results in the face of breach.

May the third generation of specific performance discourse begin.

Cite as: Caprice Roberts, Studying Specific Performance, JOTWELL (May 25, 2017) (reviewing Yonathan A. Arbel, Contract Remedies in Action: Specific Performance, 118 W. Va. L. Rev. 100 (2015), available at SSRN), http://lex.jotwell.com/studying-specific-performance/.

A Call, and Roadmap, to Create Legal Research Classes that Meet the Experiential Standard

Alyson M. Drake, The Need for Experiential Legal Research Education, 108 Law Libr. J. 511 (2016).

Experiential learning is currently one of the buzz words of legal education. Recent changes to the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools have focused greater attention on learning outcomes and assessment and increasing opportunities for learning and practicing skills that students will use as attorneys. In fact, ABA Standard 303(a)(3) requires a minimum of 6 credit hours of experiential course work.

Traditionally, experiential learning was widely thought to be the domain of law school clinics and externships, or field placements. However, the increased credit hour requirement for experiential learning has caused law schools to review their curriculum and determine whether sufficient experiential learning opportunities exist to meet the minimum requirement. Accordingly, there is a push to design new courses, or redesign existing courses, to meet a third type of experiential learning termed simulation courses, as described in ABA Standard 304. In order to qualify as a simulation course under the standard, a course should provide an experience “reasonably similar” to client representation although the student is not working with a real client.

Professor Alyson M. Drake’s article calls for the creation or retooling of stand-alone research classes that will meet the requirements to be designated as experiential classes. An increase in the number of research classes categorized as experiential will provide two benefits. First, and most importantly, it can serve to provide additional legal research instruction beyond the first year of law school. It will also support the mission of law schools to expand course offerings that meet the experiential standard.

Although classes in legal research have traditionally been sparse and under-valued in law schools, this approach does not match the necessity for proficiency in legal research needed as a practicing attorney, or the amount of an attorney’s time that is devoted to legal research. Professor Drake notes that newer attorneys spend approximately 35% of their time on legal research. More experienced attorneys spend approximately 18% of their time doing research. In contrast, Professor Drake notes that hiring attorneys often assess new attorney research skills as needing improvement. Providing more legal research instruction, in a format that closely mimics the work of a practicing attorney, will produce students who are better prepared to transition to practice.

Professor Drake’s article provides a very useful overview of the history of this shift in the ABA Standards and legal education in general. Similarly, the article also provides a breakdown of the Standards and how they can be interpreted in regards to experiential education and, in particular, simulation courses. This background and analysis of the standards is quite useful for those seeking to understand the context of the shift toward increased experiential learning as well as those seeking to create experiential learning opportunities in legal research courses.

Finally, Professor Drake discusses several current legal research teaching methods and how they might be retooled to satisfy the requirements of Standard 304. She breaks down the components of different pedagogical structures, highlighting which components are likely to already meet the requirements, which aspects might not, and recommending ways in which those components might be restructured to meet the standard.

Professor Drake begins with the “traditional legal research course,” described as “those where the lecture takes place during class time.” (P. 529.) Some classroom practice is usually included, but the balance between lecture and practicing skills can vary significantly. A traditional class of this sort may be the most challenging to convert to an experiential model. However, Professor Drake offers several changes to a traditional class that could support its meeting the ABA requirements for an experiential class. These include ensuring the balance between lecture and practice weighs most heavily toward practice, using assignments that closely approximate problems likely to occur in practice, and limiting class size so that the professor can provide “direct supervision.”

Professor Drake goes on to discuss key components of flipped, online, and specialized legal research courses and outlines several suggestions for how these courses can be retooled to meet the experiential requirements. Her article is a call to create experiential legal research courses, but it goes farther by providing a roadmap that can be used to design new classes or restructure existing classes. Legal research is a critical lawyering skill; however, it is also an area where hiring attorneys believe new attorney skills are lacking. This gap between the necessity of efficient and effective research and ability at law school graduation creates an opportunity for the growth of legal research courses in the curriculum.

Cite as: Kristina Niedringhaus, A Call, and Roadmap, to Create Legal Research Classes that Meet the Experiential Standard, JOTWELL (May 2, 2017) (reviewing Alyson M. Drake, The Need for Experiential Legal Research Education, 108 Law Libr. J. 511 (2016)), http://lex.jotwell.com/a-call-and-roadmap-to-create-legal-research-classes-that-meet-the-experiential-standard/.