February 15, 2008
Wisconsin Contracts
Posted by Gordon Smith

I arrived in Madison today for the Wisconsin Contracts Conference, which started this afternoon and continues tomorrow. As my flight flew over the isthmus, I looked down on the city and spotted the familiar landmarks. Despite the cold and the snow, this has been a wonderful homecoming, catching up with my former colleagues.

The conference launched with a presentation by Beth Mertz on her book, The Language of Law School, which is based on a study of eight first-year Contracts courses. Beth is a linguist, and she examines the ways in which people are translated into legal roles and their actions are translated into legal categories in the law school classroom. Beth describes the effect of this translation as follows:

The legal language taught in the United States ... has a double edge. On the one hand, the approach to legal reading found in law school classrooms offers students a potentially liberating opportunity to step into an impersonal, abstract, and objective approach to human conflict. On the other hand, erasing (or marginalizing) many of the concrete social and contextual features of these conflicts can direct attention away from grounded moral understandings, which some critics believe are crucial to achieving justice. Moreover, this step out of social context and emotion provides the law with a cloak of apparent neutrality, which can conceal the ways that law participates in and supports unjust aspects of capitalist societies. This approach also gives the appearance of dealing with concrete and specific aspects of each conflict, thereby hiding the ways that legal approaches exclude  from systematic consideration the very details and contexts that many would deem important for making just moral assessments.

The Wisconsin contracts materials are designed to provide some of that additional context, which is why the book is noticeably heavy on facts. As John Kidwell noted in his opening remarks to the conference, "facts matter." But which facts -- out of all those available -- are worthy of attention?

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