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HILL MAB 6-10-04 6/24/04 5:11 PM 889 HOW DO GERMAN CONTRACTS DO AS MUCH WITH FEWER WORDS? CLAIRE A. HILL AND CHRISTOPHER KING∗ INTRODUCTION German business contracts are much shorter than their Ameri- can counterparts. They also avoid the worst excesses of legalese that American contracts are known for. But they seem to work as well as United States contracts. We seek to understand how German busi- ness contracts could do as much with fewer words. How well a co
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  H ILL MAB   6-10-04 6/24/04   5:11 PM 889 HOW DO GERMAN CONTRACTS DO AS MUCH WITH FEWER WORDS? C LAIRE A. H ILL AND C HRISTOPHER K ING ∗  I NTRODUCTION  German business contracts are much shorter than their Ameri-can counterparts. They also avoid the worst excesses of legalese that American contracts are known for. But they seem to work as well as United States contracts. We seek to understand how German busi-ness contracts could do as much with fewer words. How well a contract works is not amenable to precise measure-ment. Still, characterizing German contracts and the business-contracting endeavor in Germany as working as well as their American counterparts seems reasonable as a working assumption. Certainly, there are no indications that Germany’s transactional sector has systematic defects relative to that of the United States. Transaction activity is vigorous—many deals are negotiated and consummated. And, as is the case in the United States, some transac-tions end up being litigated in court, but most do not. Our explanation is predicated on an account of what contracting does. Contracting aims to create a bigger transactional pie in a world where parties’ incentives are misaligned and they need to coordinate ∗  Hill is Professor and Norman and Edna Freehling Scholar, Chicago-Kent College of Law. King is General Counsel of Hunter Douglas NV. King is admitted as an attorney-at-law in New York, is on the Roll as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, and is a Volljurist in Germany. Hill wishes to acknowledge helpful conversations with Lisa Bernstein, Margaret Blair, Mary Eaton, Scott Faga, David Gerber, Tom Ginsburg, Steve Harris, Kevin Haynes, Don Langevoort, David Luban, Clarissa Potter, Mark Rosen, Jackie Ross, Larry Solan, Micah Thorner, and Richard Warner; helpful research assistance of Deborah Ginsberg; and helpful comments from participants at the Canadian Law and Economics Association Confer-ence, the Midwestern Law and Economics Association Conference, the Champaign/Kent Col-loquium, the Italian-American Congress of Comparative Law conference on Ordinary Language and Legal Language in Public and Private Law, the Olin Workshop at Georgetown University Law Center, and the Chicago-Kent Symposium “Law &,” where she presented this paper. King expresses his thanks to his  stagiaire  Astrid Nelsen for her assistance on researching some of the issues on German civil procedure as well as the panel of the symposium of the Deutsch-Amerikanische Juristenvereinigung on Mergers and Acquisitions in September 2003 in Berlin, Germany, in particular Dr. Martin Schulte of Clifford Chance, Düsseldorf, where he discussed some of the issues in this paper.  H ILL MAB   6-10-04 6/24/04   5:11 PM 890 CHICAGO-KENT LAW REVIEW   [Vol 79:889 the production of information, specify future rights, duties and proce-dures, and allocate risks. Addressing opportunism resulting from parties’ misalignment of incentives is therefore an enormous part of the contracting endeavor. Even if the parties’ incentives were per-fectly aligned, they would still need to find out about one another, and create and define the subject matter of their relationship. But misaligned incentives add to the volume and urgency of what’s needed: finding out about somebody else is harder if he can benefit from lying to you. And providing for future contingencies becomes more important if the other side is willing and able to take advantage of gaps in the contract to act strategically. Even if we assume a best case scenario—that each party knows, and knows that the other party knows, that the biggest pie will result if neither party acts strategi-cally—the two parties will still expend resources, each to convince the other that it is not acting strategically, and each to become convinced that the other is not acting strategically. The task of contracting thus has both adversarial and non-adversarial components. The German system permits considerable economies in the adversarial sphere; the economies extend to the non-adversarial sphere as well. The economies take the form of a reduction in transaction costs: transaction documents in Germany are far less custom-tailored to particular parties and their transaction than they are in the United States. But why do parties in Germany apparently think they can achieve their contracting aims with far less tailoring than is typical in the United States? Our answer challenges an assumption made in the contracts literature: that the contracting process in the United States, with its emphasis on custom tailoring of contracts, sensibly operates to help parties get precisely the deal they want. If this assumption were accu-rate, that German parties tailor their contracts less than do their U.S. counterparts would be puzzling indeed. But we think much customi-zation in the United States has a far less charitable explanation: it reflects (a) a costly attempt to constrain opportunism using contract language, and (b) a failure to create and accept “good enough” solu-tions to non-adversarial (and some adversarial) issues parties com-monly face. We argue that German contracting does better on both these fronts. It cuts short the costly and inefficient “arms race” in which U.S. transacting parties and their lawyers too often engage in their negotiation and drafting of contracts. It also creates and uses “good  H ILL MAB   6-10-04 6/24/04   5:11 PM 2004] HOW DO GERMAN CONTRACTS DO AS MUCH WITH FEWER WORDS?  891 enough” standardized solutions to common non-adversarial (and some adversarial) problems faced by transacting parties. The solu-tions are found in the law, in trade association forms, and in law firms’ forms, which are not uncommonly published. The two features, “stopping sooner” in the arms race and the availability and use of standardized solutions, are related. If there were more of a norm to customize contracts, the payoff to developing and using standardized solutions would be far smaller, and there would probably be far less standardization. But we do not want to paint too rosy a picture of German con-tracting. First, there are costs to the foregone tailoring itself: to some extent, German parties may very well compromise in their contracts on getting (or in any event, specifying) precisely the deal they want. And the laws, norms, and institutional features that limit the payoff to contract tailoring and increase the payoff to stopping sooner impose other costs. Indeed, there are laws limiting “unfair” behavior or be-havior “not in good faith.” The scope of these laws may be uncertain, and costly to assess. These laws may go too far, preventing parties who would like to do so from agreeing on a lower standard of conduct. Second, what we characterize as German contracting may, in the not-so-distant future, become extinct. Anglo-American firms are increasingly bringing their style of practice, notably including Anglo-American style transaction documentation, to Germany. 1  Such firms presently dominate large cross-border transactions and are making inroads into domestic middle market transactions as well. 2  We have an explanation as to why what we characterize as a superior system would be supplanted by an inferior system. However, even if our ex-planation is correct, the ostensibly superior system can be faulted at least for its inability to resist the ostensibly inferior system. We also cannot rule out the possibility that the market is rendering its verdict. Until recently, Germany’s transacting community had been fairly 1. For instance, cross-border merger and acquisition (M & A) transactions between German and non-German parties made up approximately 50 percent of all German M & A transactions in 2000. M ECKL L UCKS , I NTERNATIONALE M ERGERS & A CQUISITIONS , D ER PROZESSORIENTIERTE A NSATZ  S. 2 (2002). Such transactions use the longer Anglo-American style contract documentation rather than the shorter “German” documentation we are discuss-ing in this Article.   2 . Id .;  see also  H ANDBUCH M ERGERS & A CQUISITIONS  S. 97–98 (Gerhard Picot ed., 2002). Indeed, a recent article attributed some responsibility for German companies’ rising costs of legal services to English law firms. See Unternehmen prüfen Anwaltshonorare strenger,  F RANKFURTER A LLGEMEINE Z EITUNG , 26.5.2004 S. 25.    H ILL MAB   6-10-04 6/24/04   5:11 PM 892 CHICAGO-KENT LAW REVIEW   [Vol 79:889 repeat and homogeneous. The arms race in customizing contract provisions may be impossible to constrain in the more diffuse transac-tional community that European integration and globalization are bringing about; with enough customization, the benefits to using and developing standardized provisions diminish greatly. 3  Where is law in our analysis? Its role is critical, but complex. Its “traditional” role—discouraging breach and compensating the victim of a breach—may be less important than its other roles. Law may function expressively 4  to influence norms and practices in the trans-acting community; it also may provide a focal point around which parties can coordinate. 5  To be sure, law’s traditional role is not unimportant in our analy-sis. Indeed, compared to U.S. law, German law may more cheaply yield more certain results in litigation. But in much of our explana-tion, law plays a more intricate and less direct role, and appropriately so, given that becoming bound under law is only one of the functions contracting serves. Indeed, no changes in law can plausibly explain the shift to Anglo-American style contracting;   our account provides further evidence, if it were needed, that contracting is not in any simple way merely a creature of law. Our account also has implications for the debates on the proper content of and role for contract law. At least where the parties are sophisticated, and equally so, and externalities are not at issue, there might seem to be a case for less law; why shouldn’t parties know better what they want than (notoriously flawed) lawmakers, espe-cially legislators? And not just less mandatory law, but also less default law, so that parties don’t have to incur the expense of con-tracting around the default. 6  But the less law argument is seriously undermined even in this best case scenario, because the alternative is 3. Interestingly, the European community is studying the development of standardized contract terms for use throughout Europe. See http://europa.eu.int/comm/consumers/ cons_int/safe_shop/fair_bus_pract/cont_law/index_en.htm, (last visited May 31, 2004), in which the initiative is described, and http://europa.eu.int/comm/consumers/cons_int/safe_shop/ fair_bus_pract/cont_law/analytical_en.pdf (last visited June 1, 2004), summarizing the quite-divergent views received on the initiative. 4. Some of the most interesting work on the expressive function of law has been done by Richard McAdams. See, e.g. , Richard H. McAdams,  A Focal Point Theory of Expressive Law , 86 V A . L. R EV . 1649 (2000) [hereinafter Focal Point Theory ]; Richard H. McAdams,  An Attitu-dinal Theory of Expressive Law , 79 O R . L. R EV . 339 (2000). 5. McAdams, Focal Point Theory ,  supra note 4, at 1651;  see also  Robert E. Scott, Rethink-ing the Default Rule Project  , 6 V A . J. 84, 91–93 (2003). 6. The “less law” position is forcefully argued in a recent article by Alan Schwartz & Robert E. Scott, Contract Theory and the Limits of Contract Law , 113 Y ALE L.J. 540 (2003).
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