The Richness of Contract Theory

Michigan Law Review, Annual Survey of Books Relating to the Law, Vol. 97, No. 6, P. 501, 1999

Posted: 12 Oct 1999


In his book, "The Richness of Contract Law," Robert Hillman criticizes "highly abstract" or "unifying" contract law theories that, he says, fail to reflect adequately the complexities of existing contract law. In his review, "The Richness of Contract Theory," Randy Barnett takes issue with this claim and identifies the generational dispute between legal "realists," whose approach is shared by Professor Hillman, and legal "theorists" of whom Hillman is critical. Professor Barnett's thesis is that the very purpose of modern legal theories is to simplify a complex reality so as to better understand, cope with, and reform legal doctrine. Barnett then discusses Hillman's recent important empirical research on promissory estoppel. Hillman's findings represent a partial corrective to the previous consensus against a "reliance theory" of promissory estoppel insofar as they establish that reliance is a necessary element of promissory estoppel. However, his data also support the Willistonian conception of promissory estoppel by showing that a promise is also required. Ironically, Hillman is, Barnett claims, insufficiently sensitive to the complexity of the cases he surveys and the need to distinguish "reasonable" or "justified" from "unreasonable" or "unjustified" reliance. A more sophisticated analysis of these cases is provided by Professor Sidney DeLong who also is, not coincidentally, more receptive than Hillman to the richness of modern contract theory. While supporting Hillman's finding concerning the requirement of reliance, DeLong also notices courts frequently distinguishing "performance" from "enforcement" reliance. Enforcement reliance is reliance accompanied by a manifested intention by the promisor to be legally bound, or what Barnett has previously called consent.

Suggested Citation

Barnett, Randy E., The Richness of Contract Theory. Michigan Law Review, Annual Survey of Books Relating to the Law, Vol. 97, No. 6, P. 501, 1999. Available at SSRN:

Randy E. Barnett (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9936 (Phone)


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