Please, Mr. Postman

Originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

Please, Mr. Postman

BY ANDREW J. McCLURG

The “mailbox rule” is an elementary principle of contract law which holds that a contract acceptance is valid upon dispatch in the United States mail.

Some assert that the conveniences of modern technology may soon render the mailbox rule obsolete. For example, already under the emerging “cell phone rule” a contract may be offered, accepted, breached and the offeror verbally abused without ever having to leave one’s car.

Others argue persuasively that the legal profession will never allow the mailbox rule to die because it is one of the only rules lawyers remember from law school. Thus, familiarity with strategies for avoiding this harsh rule is essential.

Once a contract acceptance is deposited in the mail, the sole means of withdrawing it is to actually physically retrieve the letter. Fortunately, several creative options exist for accomplishing this:

1. The Official Method. The only method approved by the U.S. Postal Service for retrieving a letter once it has made it into the hands of a postal worker is begging. This ancient form of pleading, known in Latin as Si placet, Bone Vir Tabellarius, is believed to have originated in 398 B.C. although it did not gain widespread judicial favor until the Marvelettes made it into a hit single in 1961.

2. The Magic Trick Method. Tell the postal worker you are going to perform a magic trick. Reach into her mailbag and pull out a rabbit. If there’s no rabbit inside, pull out a coupon book, an electric bill, anything you can get your hands on. Whatever comes out, pretend it’s a rabbit. While the postal worker is dialing 911, retrieve the acceptance letter from the mailbag.

3. The Enticement Method. Tell the postal worker the local sporting goods store is holding a two-for-one sale on assault weapons and that neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night should keep him from taking advantage of this limited offer. Withdraw the letter while he’s gone — quickly. (Kidding, kidding. Please, no letters from offended postal workers and definitely no packages.)

4. The Career Change Method. Intercept the letter by rapidly taking the civil service exam and actually becoming a postal worker. The risk of this approach is that, because postal workers earn more than many lawyers and get to drive around in those cool little trucks, you may lose interest in contract law and forget about retrieving the letter.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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