Adversarial Legalism: The American Way of Law

May 03, 2005


Dr. Robert A. Kagan
Professor of Political Science and Law
University of California, Berkeley 

American methods of policy implementation and dispute resolution are more adversarial and legalistic when compared with the systems of other economically advanced countries. U.S. citizens more often rely on legal threats and lawsuits to achieve their desired goals. Furthermore, American laws are generally more complicated then their Western counterparts; adjudication is more costly, and penalties are often more prescriptive and severe.

In this seminar, Professor Robert Kagan will explain the origins of America's unique system of "adversarial legalism," assess its social costs, and discuss how an analysis of "adversarial legalism" might influence legal reform efforts. Participants will deepen their understanding of the law and its relationship to politics in America, and leave with a more informed view of the American legal system. Questions to be covered in this session include:

  • What makes the US system distinct? Why has the American legal system developed as uniquely it has?
  • In the tort law system, what are the differences between “replacement” reforms and “discouragement” reforms?
  • How might “adversarial legalism” inform the current tort reform debate?