The Essential Elements of Corporate Law

37 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2009 Last revised: 10 Dec 2018

See all articles by John Armour

John Armour

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Henry Hansmann

Yale University - Law School; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Reinier Kraakman

Harvard Law School; European Corporate Governance Institute


This article is the first chapter of the second edition of The Anatomy of Corporate Law: A Comparative and Functional Approach, by Reinier Kraakman, John Armour, Paul Davies, Luca Enriques, Henry Hansmann, Gerard Hertig, Klaus Hopt, Hideki Kanda and Edward Rock (Oxford University Press, 2009). The book as a whole provides a functional analysis of corporate (or company) law in Europe, the U.S., and Japan. Its organization reflects the structure of corporate law across all jurisdictions, while individual chapters explore the diversity of jurisdictional approaches to the common problems of corporate law. In its second edition, the book has been significantly revised and expanded.

As the book's introductory chapter, this article describes the functions and boundaries of corporate law. We first detail the economic importance of the corporate form's hallmark features: legal personality, limited liability, transferable shares, delegated management, and investor ownership. We then identify the major agency problems that attend the corporate form, and that, therefore, corporate law must address: conflicts between managers and shareholders, between controlling and minority shareholders, and between shareholders as a class and non-shareholder constituencies of the firm such as creditors and employees. In our view, corporate law serves in part to accommodate contract and property law to the corporate form and, in substantial part, to address the agency problems that are associated with this form. We next consider the role of law in structuring corporate affairs so as to achieve these goals: whether, and to what extent standard forms - as opposed, on the one hand, to private contract, and on the other, to mandatory rules - are needed, and the role of regulatory competition. Whilst the ‘core’ features of corporate law are present in all - or almost all - legal systems, different systems have made different choices regarding the form and content of many other aspects of their corporate laws. To assist in explaining these, we review a range of forces that shape the development of corporate law, including domestic share ownership patterns. These forces operate differently across countries, implying that in some cases, complementary differences in corporate laws are functional. However, other such differences may be better explained as a response to purely distributional concerns.

In addition to Chapter 1, Chapter 2 of the Anatomy of Corporate Law (2nd ed.), Agency problems, Legal Strategies, and Enforcement is also available (full text) on SSRN at

Keywords: Corporation, agency problem, corporate law, corporate regulation, corporate governance, securities law, limited liability, regulatory competition, mandatory rules, comparative corporate law, evolution of corporate law

JEL Classification: D23, G32, G34, G38, K22, M14

Suggested Citation

Armour, John and Hansmann, Henry and Kraakman, Reinier H., The Essential Elements of Corporate Law. Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20/2009, Yale Law, Economics & Public Policy Research Paper No. 387, Harvard Law and Economics Research Paper No. 643, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 09-39, European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) - Law Working Paper No. 134/2009, Available at SSRN:

John Armour (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

St Cross Building
St Cross Road
Oxford, OX1 3UL
United Kingdom
+44 1865 281616 (Phone)


European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels


Henry Hansmann

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-7101 (Phone)

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels


Reinier H. Kraakman

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-3586 (Phone)
617-496-6118 (Fax)

European Corporate Governance Institute ( email )

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels

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