Why do parties—even sophisticated ones—draft contracts that are vague or incomplete? Many others have tackled this question, but this Article argues that there is an overlooked, common, and powerful reason for contractual gaps. Using original interviews with dealmakers, it introduces a theory of “collaborative intent” to show that the bureaucratic deal-building process within companies can explain why contracts are incomplete, vague, and otherwise seemingly irrational. The institutional details of dealmaking are important but understudied, and have wide-ranging implications for contract theory, design, and interpretation.

This Article makes three contributions to the literature. First, using original interviews with in-house dealmakers, it provides the literature’s first account of how deals are made within companies. Both economists and legal scholars have tackled the puzzle of incomplete contracting, but leading explanations overlook the critical influence of companies’ internal deal-building process. Unlike individuals who enter into contracts, sophisticated business parties do not have monolithic intent. Instead, even before taking a seat at the negotiation table, business parties engage in a complex, internal bargaining process that requires many intra-corporate constituencies to weigh in and sign off on the deal. The result is that sophisticated business parties bring multiple agendas to the negotiation table, and those agendas are reflected in the contract. Second, collaboration complicates intent, especially for sophisticated parties. Rather than being the result of rational, considered contract design, contractual gaps may be mere byproducts of the contract-shepherding process within the firm. Finally, this Article offers practical guidance to courts and contract designers about the overlooked and rampant intra-corporate bargaining and pork-barreling process. It helps them account for collaborative intent in ex ante contract design and ex post contract enforcement.

Cathy Hwang, Collaborative Intent, 108 Virginia Law Review, 657–708 (2022).