Have you ever asked yourself whether your contract was good enough? If you’re like most freelancers or small business owners, you probably don’t have the time or, frankly, the desire, to deal with something as mundane as a contract. And, for the most part, you don’t have to. Drafting a contract from scratch is mostly unnecessary since the Internet has dozens of websites that provide decent templates for different situations across industries.
But templates are just that — generic documents that cover a wide range of scenarios using broad language. They’re a good place to start but are too often sent to clients with minimal, if any, changes. And while this is quick and may save you the headache of reading and analyzing boring contract language, all it takes is one hiccup to land you in court with that very same contract at the heart of it all.
Are Contracts Really That Important?
A contract, according to Cornell’s legal dictionary, is “an agreement between private parties creating mutual obligations enforceable by law.” Usually this plays out as a promise that you’ll do some specific work for someone and that said someone will pay you for your work, and that both of you are legally bound to uphold the your side of the bargain.
But things don’t always work out as planned. Sometimes contracts are broken. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to end up in court. The legal process can be long, complicated and expensive and parties tend to try to remedy contract breaches outside the courtroom whenever possible.
Indeed, a lot of negotiation happens informally. For example, if you can’t finish a video ad on time, you may reach out to your client, explain the situation and try to figure something out that works for both sides. Maybe you bring on a subcontractor to finish the job and eat the difference in price– or perhaps you renegotiate a lower price over the delay and, for some good business karma, throw in something extra that wasn’t stipulated in the contract. In other words, you can often remedy a bad situation without bringing contract language into it.
However, it’s also not uncommon to find yourself in court on a breach of contract action, in which case the other side’s lawyer will be picking apart every word. This is where using a template can be tricky. The nonspecific language that sounded good when you were rushing to get it out the door and move things along can actually be so generic as to fail to cover an otherwise foreseeable scenario. And as lawyers, it’s easy for us to focus on a worst-case scenario. After all, it’s what we do. But a worst-case scenario can easily also end up being a most-expensive scenario, in which case nobody wins.
Should you go DIY or ESQ?
So what are the best ways to avoid contract chaos? If you choose to draft it yourself, please allocate time and attention to it, especially if you don’t have legal training or experience. There are plenty of free resources out there. Or if you want to be extra safe, hire a lawyer with contract experience.
If you choose to draft it yourself, please allocate time and attention to it, especially if you don’t have legal training or experience.
If you want to take the do-it-yourself (DIY) route, websites like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer make it easy to find and download contract templates for various scenarios such as freelance and consultancy work. These sites even have informative blogs that can help you think through your specific situation and edit your template accordingly.
There are also plenty of non-legal websites and blogs with downloadable boilerplate contracts. For example, if you search “video production contract template” on Google, you will find a handful of websites with well-crafted templates and helpful information. VIdeomaker also offers the “Complete Book of Forms,” includes templates for all the contracts you might need along with other useful resources.
As you download and look at multiple templates side-by-side, you’ll start seeing slightly different versions of similar contractual language. Pick the language that most closely matches your circumstance. It’s also a learning experience and can even help you shape the way you do business. For example, first-time freelancers can be shy when it comes to asking for payment and negotiating rates. Reading through a Payment or Fee Schedule clause in a contract can help frame the process in business terms and make it less scary to, say, ask for a deposit or refuse to do additional work for free. Ultimately, you don’t have to be a lawyer to put together a solid contract; you just need to put the time and effort into it.
On the other hand, if you want to be absolutely sure that your contract is air-tight, especially if you don’t have enough time to carefully work through it yourself, you can and should hire a lawyer. Sure, this makes things a bit more expensive, but the security and safety of having a professionally drafted contract may be worth it, particularly if the job is big or the client is corporate. And, truth be told, it’s usually not prohibitively expensive to have a lawyer draft a contract. You don’t have to go with a fancy corporate law firm. A solo practitioner or freelance attorney will usually do the trick, and they’ll charge you much less than a big law firm might.
No matter how you go about your contract, the most important thing is that you actually devote time and attention to it. This way, if something goes wrong, particularly if it’s out of your control, you will at least have some peace of mind knowing that you will be protected in a court of law. Having a bulletproof contract can be the difference between a bump in the road and a business sinkhole.
Roman Zelichenko, based in New York City, is a writer and entrepreneur with intellectual property experience, and has drafted legal opinions and articles on the subject. Mark Levy is an award-winning amateur movie maker and intellectual property attorney based in Colorado.