What I Learned from Teaching Remedies

December 11, 2012 Tyler Atkinson


One of the more Zen-like sections of the California Civil Code states: “For every right there is a remedy.”  It is an American legal tradition, thus codified in our state law, that if an individual is wronged, or her rights are threatened, she can go to court and get relief.  But what relief will she obtain?  An injunction?  Money damages?  If so, how much?  Sometimes the question of which relief—of remedies—is more complicated than the original legal dispute.

This Fall, I had an opportunity to co-teach a law school Remedies class with Jim McManis.  Jim has been practicing for more than 40 years and is one of the most established lawyers in the United States.  Teaching Remedies with Jim is similar, I imagine, to teaching baseball with Joe Torre.

To prepare for the class, I read every California Bar Exam question from the past decade.  I poured over treatises and commercial books.  I carefully devised an outline of what I thought the class should cover, basically a survey of California Remedies, soup to nuts.

 Jim appreciated my neurotic efforts, but recognized a key missing piece: “Policy.”  Jim retooled my outline to include discussion of why the law is the way it is—and whether it should be different.  Jim’s insight was to include class discussion and debate about the policy reasons behind the various remedies.  For example, we discussed not only how to obtain punitive damages, but why they are permitted in the first place.  We discussed not only the remedies to get out of a contract but also why our system does not consider contracts to be immutable, unbreakable, or irrevocable.

Led by Jim’s pointed questions and observations, the class analyzed and debated the policy underpinnings of our legal system.  Important exam concepts were reinforced.   Oral argument skills were sharpened.  Class participation was lively and focused.  The students listened intently to each other, and respectfully engaged their peers.

I was surprised by the amount of policy debate Jim was able to spur from what many may consider a dry topic.  The law of remedies poses many questions about how we right wrongs in our society, and how we attempt to make victims “whole.”  Jim’s policy debates revealed to me how inexact a science this really is. 

Teaching remedies was more than just a refresher on the law for me.  The experience reminded me that there are reasons behind each law, whether we agree with those reasons or not.  The law is not monolithic and, with Ten exceptions, not set in stone.  Like the individuals in our Remedies class, as members of a larger society, we should continue to discuss the policies behind our laws.  We should debate them respectfully, but take nothing for granted.