Steinbeck on the Emotional Impact of Contract Signing

Lawyers who spend our days squinting to foresee tragedy—usually by cataloging historical harms—tend to grow comfortable with the weight of such dire (if remote) risks.

We might forget, then, that our parade of portents can pack a punch for people who are unaccustomed to considering such calamity.

John Steinbeck captures it vividly in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. He and Doc Ricketts are chartering a vessel in Monterrey for a six-week scientific expedition in the Gulf of California. Upon agreeing to terms in principle, it is time to put ink on the page.

The charter was signed with dignity and reverence. It is impossible to be light-hearted in the face of a ship’s charter, for the law has foreseen or remembered the most doleful and arbitrary acts of God and has set them down as possibilities, but in the tone of inevitabilities. Thus, you read what you or the others must do in the case of a wreck, or sunken rocks; of death at sea in its most painful and astonishing aspects; of injury to plank and keel; of water shortage and mutiny. Next to marriage settlement or sentence of death, a ship’s charter is as portentous a document as has ever been written. Penalties are set down against both parties, and if on some morning the rising sun should find your ship in the middle of the Mojave Desert you have only to look again at the charter to find the blame assigned and the penalty indicated. It took us several hours to get over the solemn feeling the charter put on us. We thought we might live better lives and pay our debts, and one at least of us contemplated for one holy, horrified moment a vow of chastity.

—John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Why mention it? Because for most lawyers, customer experience is the only meaningful way for clients to distinguish the quality of your work. Working to understand that experience will help you to improve it. Steinbeck gives us a window into how our clients perceive the contracts we craft.

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