In Trust We Trust — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel

The recent leak of the Panama Papers exposed the public to the magnitude of assets held in offshore accounts. These accounts are often associated with motives such as tax evasion and asset shielding from creditors, although they may be more legitimate motives to locating one’s assets offshore, such as privacy or preference for the rules of a specific legal system.  The estimates of how much is stowed offshore vary significantly, from one to five trillion dollars, an interval so large that it mostly reveals our ignorance. We simply know too little about these accounts, their motives, structures, and value—which, from the viewpoint of those who designed these trusts, is a feature, not a bug.  The most comprehensive work to date on the topic is that of Professors Sitkoff and Schanzenbach, who studied U.S. institutional trustees. However, these trustees are not likely representative of offshore trusts, and so, our understanding of offshore trusts is still foggy.

In a new intriguing paper, forthcoming in the Hastings Law Journal, Adam Hofri-Winogradow is providing us with a glimpse into the clandestine world of onshore and offshore trusts.  Hofri used a combined qualitative methodology of surveying and interviewing providers of trust services. Overall, he surveyed 409 providers of trust services and interviewed 25. Of his many findings, I will highlight just a few.

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Apologies as Tort Reform — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel

When we wrong others, there is often an expectation—perhaps a moral duty—that we apologize. By apologizing, the wrongdoer asserts ownership of the wrong and acknowledges the wrongness of the act and the moral standing of the victim. It is also said that apologies can help restore the social order disrupted by the wrong.

In recent decades, many scholars have suggested that there should be a place in the law for apologies. And so the idea of ‘apology laws’ – laws that promote and protect the use of apologies – was born. These laws, now found in 36 states, are meant to encourage wrongdoers to apologize without fear of legal repercussions, and they typically apply in private law settings, such as torts and medical malpractice. A paradigmatic example is a doctor who makes a mistake during surgery but, in the absence of a ‘safe harbor’, would be reluctant to apologize for fear that admitting the mistake would foster litigation and count as an admission of liability.  An apology law that makes apologies inadmissible as evidence of fault at trial, as most do, promises to overcome this barrier.

In a new paper, Tort Reform Through the Backdoor: A Critique of Law & Apologies, (Forthcoming S. Cal. L. Rev., 2017), Yotam Kaplan and I are challenging the predominant scholarly disposition favoring laws that create safe harbors for apologies. We argue that in commercial settings—involving insurance companies, large firms, hospitals, etc.—using the law to encourage apologies may undermine tort liability and undercut deterrence. This effect is not necessarily negative—many people believe that the tort system is out of control—but it does mean apology laws are de-facto tort reform. That many states that normally oppose tort reform adopted apology laws was the result of clever marketing and concentrated lobbying efforts by tort reformers who co-opted the legal discourse on apologies to their own ends. Perhaps most notably, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—neither of whom is a card-carrying tort reformer—advocated actively for apology laws in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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Private Law and Asset Shielding — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel,  postdoctoral fellow in private law, Harvard Law School (job market candidate)

One of the central questions in the New Private Law is how ‘down-to-earth’ should legal analysis be? Regardless of one’s substantive view on this debate, there is one area in which we have been insufficiently realistic: private law enforcement. There is a real gap in our understanding of how legal norms are executed by sheriffs, bailiffs, and private ordering. Understanding the limits of doctrine and law could be informative for both economic and justice-based views of the law, as well as to views that look at the law from the internal point of view.

My scholarship focuses on questions concerning the enforcement of private legal norms. In Shielding of Assets and Lending Contracts (Forthcoming, Int’l Rev. L. Econ.) I consider the problem of asset shielding. Most judgments, if not voluntarily implemented, depend on enforcement through the seizure of the judgment-debtor’s assets. The problem is that ownership is too malleable and enforcement is too constrained, so there are many ways in which people can hide, shield, or protect their assets (transfer of money to an exotic offshore trust, bankruptcy planning, sham transfer to one’s relatives, hiding money under the mattress, etc.). Some of these techniques are more complicated than others, and some people will have moral reservations about deploying certain kinds of shielding techniques, or self-interested concerns about the effects of shielding on their credit scores, but overall, there is a real temptation here – especially since criminal enforcement against those who shield is quite rare. Given this temptation, it is puzzling why people do not shield assets more often. More generally, because avoiding judgments through asset shielding undermines many private legal obligations, it is important to have an account of when people would choose to meet their obligations and, if they decide to shield, the magnitude of assets that would be shielded.

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Summer School Announcment: “Contract Law in a Liberal Society” — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel Dr. Lyn Tjon Soei Len, of the University of Amsterdam,  asked to bring this invitation for their very interesting summer-school to the attention of our readers: From June 29- July 1 the Summer School “Contract Law in a Liberal Society” will take place in Amsterdam. Junior scholars and advanced students will have … Read more

Specific Performance in Action – Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel

Greg Klass’ recent post (as well as recent essay) raised the issue of efficient breach. Deeply embedded in the debate on efficient breach is the choice of remedies between specific performance and expectation damages. If courts award money damages, then this—in the view of opponents of the efficient breach theory—enables promisors to “buy” their way out of promises. Instead, the argument goes, awarding specific performance would give promisees “what they were promised”.  Contrary to their approach, specific performance is reserved under U.S. law only to (arguably) exceptional circumstances involving unique goods and land.

In my work, I try to show that enforcement matters. Parties do not negotiate or behave in the shadow of the law, I argue, but in the shadow of the sheriff. And conventional theory has tended to downplay and sometimes completely overlook the role of enforcement. Thinking through the lens of enforcement on private law provides new insight on old questions and the question of choice of remedies is no exception.

Looking from this perspective, I conducted a qualitative empirical analysis looking into the motivations of people suing for specific performance and the real-life outcomes of these lawsuits: are judgments implemented? Do people negotiate around them? To what extent do the motivations of litigants differ from their lawyers?

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New Contributions to the Law of Property by Henry Smith: Realism, Numerus Clausus, and Custom– Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel

Professor Henry Smith has recently published two new engaging and interesting papers in the area of property law, both part of different symposia. For the symposia lists of papers, see here and here, and for the papers, see here and here (citations at the bottom of the post).

The first is part of a symposium where the main question was the enduring appeal of doctrinal analysis in private law, despite the “we-are-all-realists-now” dominant point of view. There are many great contributions there, and Smith takes this question to the area of property. He makes a simple but strong argument: the most basic of property doctrinal categories (or modules)—property as a law of things, the centrality of possessory rights, and property law as a partly formal system—stands tall in the face of the realist onslaught because, far from being transcendental nonsense, they serve important social functions, namely, they serve as information heuristics for complex social situations.  Smith surveys changes to property law since the times of the realists and shows that wherever changes occur, they were around the edges of property, and that the basic categories were left largely untouched despite the impression one might get from reading purely academic works.

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Charles Fried, Contract as Promise, 2.0 — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel

The second edition of Charles Fried’s foundational book ‘Contract as Promise’ is now out in print, and to celebrate the event, Harvard Law School held a special panel comprising of Charles Fried himself as well as other HLS professors.

The event itself was filmed and the YouTube link is appended at the bottom of this post. The panel discussion was great and Charles Fried untied many of the hard knots in the earlier edition of his book. His approach is neatly summarized in a new concluding chapter to his book, aptly titled ‘Contract as Promise in the Light of Subsequent Scholarship—Especially Law and Economics’, which clearly and fairly describes many of the critiques launched at his book, and presents his version of things.

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Private Law Consortium, Day 2 part a — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan A. Arbel

Continuing Janet Freilich‘s post covering the first day of the consortium, here follows my take on the second day, which was also very successful. I will divide my summary to two separate posts, so wait for updates… In this post I cover the contributions of John Goldberg, Stephen Smith, and Robert Caso and Guilia Dore.

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SIOE (ISNIE) 2015: Institutions, Organizations, Economics — Yonathan Arbel

Post by: Yonathan Arbel

As Dan Kelly noted in his last post, this weekend the SIOE (previously known as ISNIE) conference was held at Harvard Law School. The conference was, in my slightly biased judgment (I was assisting the president-elect Henry Smith and Janet Freilich with its organization), very successful, with about 200 paper presentations and about 250 participants. It was also very international, with participants hailing from 29 countries worldwide. The program can be found here; as the program shows, there is a great richness in the topics, methodologies, and institutional affiliations of speakers. This is a by-product of the ambitious goal the society set out for itself of studying the “nature, behavior, and governance of organizations and institutions.”

Henry Smith presents Harold Demsetz with the Elinor Ostrom Lifetime Achievement Award


Let me note a few highlights and themes:

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The Acrobatics of Usury — Yonathan Arbel

Post By Yonathan Arbel

Perhaps one of the most plastic of all private law rules is the prohibition on usury. Judges and religious scholars have been pirouetting around this issue more-or-less gracefully for thousands of years. A recent interesting case in this regard is Bisno v. Kahn, 225 Cal. App. 4th 1087, 170 Cal. Rptr. 3d 709 (2014).  This case raises a question that is rarely asked: can a judgment-creditor charge any amount in exchange for delaying the execution of a judgment?

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