Contract Law

Contract Law in the United States

Economic Perspective of Contract Law

In An Economic Analysis of Law (1973), Judge Richard A. Posner (a former University of Chicago law professor) suggests that contract law performs three significant economic functions. First, it helps maintain incentives to individuals to exchange goods and services efficiently. Second, it reduces the costs of economic transactions because its very existence means that the parties need not go to the trouble of negotiating a variety of rules and terms already spelled out. Third, the law of contracts alerts the parties to trouble spots that have arisen in the past, thus making it easier to plan the transactions more intelligently and avoid potential pitfalls. (1)

Sources of Contract Law

There are four basic sources of contract law: the Constitution, federal and state statutes, federal and state case law, and administrative law. For our purposes, the most important of these, and the ones that we will examine at some length, are case law and statutes.

Case (Common) Law and the Restatement of Contracts

Because contract law was forged in the common-law courtroom, hammered out case by case on the anvil of individual judges, it grew in the course of time to formidable proportions. By the early twentieth century, tens of thousands of contract disputes had been submitted to the courts for resolution, and the published opinions, if collected in one place, would have filled dozens of bookshelves. Clearly this mass of case law was too unwieldy for efficient use. A similar problem had developed in the other leading branches of the common law. Disturbed by the profusion of cases and the resulting uncertainty of the law, a group of prominent American judges, lawyers, and teachers founded the American law Institute in 1923 to attempt to clarify, simplify, and improve the law. One of its first projects, and ultimately one of its most successful, was the drafting of the Restatement of the Law of Contracts, completed in 1932. A revision—the Restatement (Second) of Contracts—was undertaken in 1946 and finally completed in 1979.

The Restatements (others exist in the fields of torts, agency, conflicts of laws, judgments, property, restitution, security, and trusts) are detailed analyses of the decided cases in the field. These analyses are made with an eye to discerning the various principles that have emerged from the courts, and to the maximum extent possible, the Restatements declare the law as the courts have determined it to be. The Restatements, guided by a Reporter (the director of the project) and a staff of legal scholars, go through several so-called “tentative” drafts—sometimes as many as fifteen or twenty—and are screened by various committees within the American Law Institute before they are eventually published as final documents.

The Restatement of Contracts won prompt respect in the courts and has been cited in innumerable cases. The Restatements are not authoritative, in the sense that they are not actual judicial precedents, but they are nevertheless weighty interpretive texts, and judges frequently look to them for guidance. They are as close to “black letter” rules of law as exist anywhere in the American legal system for judge-made (common) law.

Statutory Law: The Uniform Commercial Code

Common law contract principles govern contracts for real estate and for services, obviously very important areas of law. But in one area the common law has been superseded by an important statute: the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), especially Article 2, which deals with the sale of goods.

Basic Contract Types

The primary sources of law for the three basic types of contracts are:

  • Real estate: common law;
  • Services: common law;
  • Sale of goods: Uniform Commercial Code (as interpreted by the courts).

Common law and the Uniform Commercial Code rules are often similar. For example, both require good faith in the performance of a contract. However, there are two general differences worth noting between the common law of contracts and the Uniform Commercial Code’s rules governing the sales of goods. First, the Uniform Commercial Code is more liberal than the common law in upholding the existence of a contract. For example, in a sales contract (covered by the Uniform Commercial Code), “open” terms—that is, those the parties have not agreed upon—do not require a court to rule that no contract was made. However, open terms in a nonsales contract will frequently result in a ruling that there is no contract. Second, although the common law of contracts applies to every person equally, under the Uniform Commercial Code “merchants” occasionally receive special treatment. By “merchants” the UCC means persons who have special knowledge or skill who deal in the goods involved in the transaction. (2)

The Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods

A Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (CISG) was approved in 1980 at a diplomatic conference in Vienna. (A convention is a preliminary agreement that serves as the basis for a formal treaty.) The Convention has been adopted by several countries, including the United States. (3)



  1. “Business and the Legal Environment”, by Don Mayer, Daniel M. Warner and George J. Siedel.

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