What understanding of law and contracts should all high school graduates have?

A response I wrote to the above Quora question:

As an initial matter, it is very subjective to ask what “all high school students” should know. For example, in response to “What understanding of automobiles should all high school students have?”, some people would say they should know the rules of the road, and others how to check the oil level, and some car fiends would say how to swap out an engine.  So I’ll give a list in decreasing order of importance:

(1) A simple understanding of what contracts are: any agreement between people to exchange value. There’s exceptions and subtleties here (what constitutes adequate consideration; statute of frauds requirements for writing), which you might include.

(2) That contracts are binding.  This may seem elementary, but it is important and I think would be part of a discussion of debt in general.  Many high school students don’t think into the future as much as older adults, and may not fully conceptualize that a year-long lease can be a problem if they want to move after six months, or that a two-year cell phone contract is going to be an issue of they want to switch carriers in a year.

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(3) How to negotiate.  In particular, I would have them understand: (a) the idea of a “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA) and the importance of researching alternatives to any potential agreement; (b) the importance of a willingness to walk away; (c) that it is ok to ask for things in a contract negotiation (even if you don’t get all of them); and (d) the relative power of the parties (related to how good their BATNA is) will influence their ability to get what they ask for.  Negotiating activities are key here, particularly for getting students to be wiling to ask for things (extra-particularly for women, who studies show are generally less likely to ask for raises and other things in negotiations [1]).  Negotiating skills are also more broadly applicable beyond contracts.

(4) The importance of just sitting down and reading a contract.  Just because a contract is unpleasant to read doesn’t mean it is completely incomprehensible.  For those parts that really are incomprehensible, it is ok to ask the other party what they mean.  If neither party knows what it means, maybe it would be good to write it differently.

(5) Specifics of contract law.  At this point it is the end of the high-level contract concepts, and you would be getting into specifics of various contract parts (representations, warranties, dispute resolution, limitation of liability, etc., etc.), which I would think is somewhere between changing the oil and changing a clutch on the automotive analogy. By this point following a book may be helpful.  I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but from the books currently on my shelf, Stark’s Drafting Contracts: How and Why Lawyers Do What The Do would probably be the one I would follow.  It seems to be intended for first-year law school courses with a practical (as opposed to academic) focus, and it’s clear and well written.

[1] Amanda Fairbanks, Huffington Post. “‘They Don’t Negotiate’: Young Women College Graduates And Their First Jobs (huffingtonpost.com)“.

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