Make Sure Your Contracts Make Sense

Drawing on Parchment by Hilke Kurzke from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One area where many entrepreneurs struggle is understanding contracts or creating custom contracts to fit their needs. Contracts are essential for every entrepreneur, but there are nothing to be afraid of. The best way I know to describe them is they are relationship management documents. They keep everyone involved in a project on the same page and hopefully are written in a way that lays out and meets everyone’s expectations and needs.

Map Out the Relationship
Before I begin writing a contract for a client, I ask them to explain the lifespan of the contract and the expected interactions between the parties. I want to have a clear mental picture of the relationships between the people involved and the expected timeline they will follow during their working relationship, including how they will address common problems in that type of work or industry. The better I understand the interactions between the parties, the easier it is to draft a contract that fits their needs, whether it’s a custom template or a contract for a specific situation.

I recommend everyone involved in a contract do the same – with a timeline, flow chart, or an outline. This will help you clarify for yourself what your expectations are, and you can use this as a guide to make sure your contract addresses all your needs and concerns.

Compare Your Vision to Reality
Once you have a contract that matches the way you envision the relationship working, compare the terms of the document to reality. If your contract template states that payment must be made within 30 days of sending the invoice but you know you’re working with a company that takes 60 days to pay invoices, no matter who they’re form, change your contract so it matches their process.

Likewise, worst-case scenario situations to make sure your what-if provisions make sense. In many contracts, I write a provision that states that disputes will be resolved in litigation. However, if you’re in a situation where a client didn’t pay for a project and owes you $1,000, it may not be worth it if you have to file a claim in small claims court, get the person served, and then go after them for payment if the court renders a judgment in your favor.

In that type of situation, it may be better to write the contract to state that the client won’t get the final work product until their bill is paid in full. The dispute resolution clause can still mandate litigation, but chances of you having to go to court to get paid drop if the client won’t get what they hired your to do until you get paid.

Contract Disputes – Your State, Your State’s Laws
Every contract needs a provision that states how the parties will resolve problems when they occur. This should include where the parties will resolve problems (e.g., Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona) and that the parties consent to this venue (in case you’re dealing with an out-of-state client). It should also include which state’s law governs the contract. Whenever possible, you want your contracts to state that all problems will be resolved on your turf and under your state’s laws.

Ideally, your contracts, especially your templates, will be written or reviewed by a business lawyer to ensure it is valid and complete. If you sign a contract that is legal, but has terms you later realize are not favorable to you, there may be nothing you can do to change them. Your contract should also be written in plain English so the parties involved can easily refer to it throughout their working relationship without needing their lawyers to translate the legalese.

If you want to connect with me and my experiences as a contract writer, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Joy of Customized Partnership Agreements

Dúo by Hernán Piñera from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A contract is a “relationship management document.” A well-written contract should put everyone involved on the same page and protect both sides. A contract should provide clear explanations to help the parties avoid confusion and prevent problems. It’s an effective way to document the priorities and goals in the relationship.

You can put anything you want in your contract as long as it’s legal. (I’ve written a legitimate contract where one party had to attest that they are “a sexy bitch.”)

The Roommate Agreement: The Epitome of Customized Agreements
One of my favorite contracts is the Roommate Agreement between Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory. It’s a perfect example of how contracts can be customized (and how important it is to define words in your contracts.) Here are some of my favorite provisions of the Sheldon-Leonard Roommate Agreement:

  • Once a day, Sheldon must ask Leonard how he is (even though Sheldon doesn’t care).
  • No “hootennanies”, sing-alongs, raucous laughter, clinking of glasses, celebratory gunfire, or barbershop quartets after 10.p.m.
  • If one friend gets super powers, he will name the other one as his sidekick.
  • If one friend gets invited to go swimming at Bill Gates’ house, he will take the other friend to accompany him.
  • Once a year, Leonard and Sheldon take one day to celebrate the contributions Leonard gives to Sheldon’s life, both real and imaginary.
  • One friend has to put up with the other’s craziness. (Yes, we know: Sheldon’s not crazy. His mother had him tested.)

I love this contract. Not only is it hilarious, it shows what a contract can be.

My Partnership Agreement
If I owned a business with a partner, we would have the best owner’s agreement. Besides the provisions about how we were going to resolve deadlocked votes when a unanimous decision is required and the division of administrative tasks, we’d customize our contract based on our personalities and priorities. Here are some provisions I’d advocate for:

  • We won’t use vendors who are known to be sexist, homophobic, racist, or who treat their workers poorly.
  • No jerks. This applies to vendors and customers who want to hire us.
  • Our office will always be dog-friendly.
  • If we’re driving somewhere together, Ruth doesn’t have to drive.
  • There is only one way to say “data” correctly in Ruth’s presence.
  • If you’re sick and contagious, stay home. Keep your germs to yourself.
  • Neither owner is allowed to do their own taxes. Let the professionals do them.
  • We will have a monthly meeting to discuss the state and future plans for the company. If either owner is 10 minutes late or more, they have to buy the other lunch.

When I write partnership agreements, operating agreements, and bylaws for companies, I have a set of questions I make my clients answer to assist me in drafting a contract that fits their needs. One of the questions is “What else do you want me to include?” and I encourage my clients to be thoughtful and creative, based on their needs and their goals for their business.

If you’re interested in getting a custom contract, you can contact me directly or a business lawyer in your community. I regularly post about legal issues impacting entrepreneurs on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

I Want to Humanize Contracts

The Anxious Type by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Anxious Type by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A friend from my business mastermind group asked me to draft a nondisclosure agreement for her for an upcoming meeting she has to discuss a future project with a potential collaborator. She wants to be able to discuss the project to see if they want to participate in it without fear that the other person will decline the opportunity but then steal her idea and compete against her. (My friend is very smart.)

The first thing I did was grab my legal pad and start jotting down ideas for clauses to include – scope of the agreement, nondisclosure provision, non-compete provision, dispute resolution, severability, etc. As a lawyer, it’s my job to go through my mental checklist of all the terms the contract should have. I’ve always said that contracts are relationship management documents and they need to be written to cover that extent of it accordingly.

This morning, as I was walking my dog, I started looking at this contract from a different perspective – how can I humanize this agreement?

In my experience, many people are afraid of contracts or they don’t read them because they assume that they are full of legalese that they won’t understand or they’re just an annoying hurdle to clear as part of a more desirable event. When I was in law school, my friends and I went to Ladies Paintball Night; the worker behind the desk said he’d never seen anyone read the waiver prior to signing it. (We altered it, then we signed it.) When I moved to my current home, it took me hours to read the CC&Rs for my HOA. They were 78 pages long, and filled with excessive legalese I swear you needed a first-year law school education, at least property class, to understand them.

Contracts should be written in plain English, be as short as possible (cover the scope then stop), and set both sides up to feel secure in what they’re getting into. Whenever I write a contract, I prefer to refer to the parties as “I” and “you” because that’s how people speak and think. In regards to this current project, I want to phrase the provisions in a way so that when my friend presents the contract to prospective collaborators, they don’t feel like there being attacked or distrusted. This document should help both sides feel comfortable speaking candidly. Here are a few of the thoughts I have about how I want to phrase some of the provisions:

  • I would not have asked for this meeting if I didn’t think you were an ideal collaborator for this project. But because this project is not only a central component of my future business plan and projected livelihood, it’s also dear to my heart, as a business owner, it’s essential that I protect it and myself. This agreement protects you too. This meeting, regardless of whether we work together on this project, should not be a hindrance to your ability to continue your professional pursuits.
  • Although I don’t anticipate there being any problems between us as a result of this meeting (otherwise we wouldn’t be having it), this is how we will address problems should it occur. I hope neither of us is in a situation where we must resort to these extreme measures, but as business people we know we must be prepared for the worst-case scenarios, even when working with the best of expectations.

There is nothing wrong with contracts using the verbiage that humanizes both sides. In fact, I encourage it. People do business with people; therefore, contracts should be written from that perspective first. When appropriate, I also encourage clients to personalize their contracts and include a touch of humor or “Easter eggs” (because I’m weird like that). You can put anything you want in a contract, as long as it’s not illegal.

I love writing contracts, and I hope I get more opportunities to write agreements that are effective for the needs of my clients’ businesses and also who they are as individuals. If you want to connect with me and my experiences as a contract writer (including how I change almost every liability waiver I sign), you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Choosing a Business Partner – Bet on the Jockey, not the Horse

Lone Star Park by Travis Isaacs (Creative Commons License)

Lone Star Park by Travis Isaacs (Creative Commons License)

When it comes to deciding who will be your business partner or a business investor, choose your associates with as much care as you would a romantic partner. When it comes to selecting these people, don’t you just look at their reputation, their track record, or their wallet. Look at who they are as a person. Look at how they work in relationships with others, their values, and their personality. If you are going to be intimately involved with this person from a business perspective, it should be someone you enjoy being around and who has values and goals that are compatible with yours.

When Gary Vaynerchuk evaluates startup owners and businesses for investment purposes, he says he bets on the jockey, not the horse. That makes perfect sense because there are times of great ideas out there but a much smaller group of people who can take one of these ideas and execute on it in effectively. As Gary would say, “Ideas are shit. Execution’s the game.

Think of your business relationships as a “business marriage.” These are people with whom you will be legally connected and have fiduciary obligations to each other. And if things don’t work out, you will need to get a “business divorce” where one partner buys the other out or when the partners decide to shut down the business and divide whatever assets are left. I’ve worked on collaborative divorces where the owners realized that they could no longer work together on a business but they could agree on what terms they wanted for their separation. I’ve also worked on contentious business divorces where each side has legal representation and the contract negotiation is longer and the parties are much more antagonistic.

In many cases, many problems in a business relationship or the business divorce could have been avoided had the parties verified that they were on the same page from the beginning of the relationship regarding their goals, how they were to run the business, and how they will resolve problems. Unfortunately, too many people use poorly written contract templates they find on the Internet or proceed without one at all. They don’t understand that it is cheaper and easier to write an effective contract with a lawyer at the big getting of a business relationship then for each side to have to hire someone to negotiate their business break up when things don’t work out.

Choose your jockey (business partner) with care. If they treat other people poorly, they will treat you poorly. If you think you can manage or manipulate a person’s behavior, you are already asking for trouble. If your prospective partner balks at the idea of solidifying your relationship with an operating agreement or investor agreement, turn and run away. No one’s money is rich enough to make up for the headaches and heartbreak that result from not having a proper contract in place. In fact, the appropriate response to a request for a contract should be something along the lines of, “Duh.”

If you want to chat more about the importance of business contracts or how to write one to accommodate your needs, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Make Your New Year’s Resolution Legally Binding

Resolving to Write More - a Worthy Thought by Carol VanHook from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Resolving to Write More – a Worthy Thought by Carol VanHook from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

As I was reading my Twitter feed the other day, I saw a post that said only 8% of people keep their New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t know if that statistic is accurate but I believe the number is low. If you want help keeping your New Year’s Resolution, make it legally binding with a contract.

Here’s what I suggest: get a friend who also has a New Year’s resolution and write a simple agreement with benefits for sticking to your resolution and penalties if you don’t. The penalty has to be painful enough that it motivates you to want to avoid it. And it helps if your friend is kind of a jerk who will hold you to it.

If I were writing this type of contract, it would be something like this:

Joe and Mike’s Resolution Agreement

Parties.  The Parties to this Agreement are Joe Smith and Mike Jones.

Consideration. In consideration of mutual desires to improve our lives and ourselves, we have created this binding agreement to stay motivated to stick to our New Year’s Resolutions.

Joe’s Resolution. Joe currently weighs 250 pounds. Joe resolves to weigh 220 pounds or less on December 31, 2015. If Joe fails to do this, Joe will donate $1,000 to the charity of Mike’s choice on that day.

Mike’s Resolution. Mike currently smokes a pack of cigarettes per day. Mike resolves to be a non-smoker by December 31, 2015. If Mike fails to do this, Mike will donate $1,000 to the charity of Joe’s choice on that day.

The Celebration. If both of us are successful in keeping our resolutions, we will celebrate by getting opening day tickets for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This is a real contract. This contract is governed by Arizona law. All disputes will be resolved in litigation in Maricopa County.  The non-prevailing Party will be responsible for the prevailing Party’s attorneys’ fees. The Parties can modify this Agreement only in writing that’s signed by both Parties (but you better have a good reason to ask to change this Agreement).

Signed by:

 

Joe Smith                    Date                                       Mike Jones                 Date

 

Witnessed by:

 

Friend Name #1           Date                                    Friend Name #2             Date

 

I threw in a celebration clause so both sides would have a reason to encourage their friend to keep their resolution, plus it’s always good to celebrate successes. I added in witnesses so there would be more people holding them accountable.  I’d tell both sides to put a copy of the contract on their refrigerator so they’d see it every day and remember the promises they made.

Contracts are fun, and they can be simple and personalized and still be valid. Good luck to everyone who making resolutions for the next year. I hope you’re successful. If you want to chat with me about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.

Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Hat tip to my friend Jeff Moriarty for suggesting this as a topic.

When’s the Last Time You Reviewed Your Contract Templates?

Inspiration as Commodity by exquisitur from Flickr

Inspiration as Commodity by exquisitur from Flickr

I had the pleasure of speaking to the Photographer’s Adventure Club last week. In addition to discussion the basics of copyright and how to protect their rights in their work, we talked a lot about the importance of contracts.

I know the subject of contracts makes a lot of people’s eyes glaze over – it’s that fine-print-legalese-crap-that-no-one-reads-anyway stuff. A lot of people think contracts are boring and a lot of contracts are . . . but they don’t have to be.

I love contracts. They create the basis of so many relationships – whether they are written, oral, or pieced together through a series of emails. Too often people come to me with a question about a problem in one of their professional relationships and when I ask, “What does your contract say about this?” the answer is “I don’t know” or “We don’t have a contract.” We can still resovle the problem but we could have avoided a lot of headaches and frustration by putting everything on paper in advance so everyone’s on the same page from the beginning.

Having contract templates is often the best way to create the relationship with others that you want. In regards to photographers they should have a file of contract templates for clients who hire them, for other photographers when they have to hire an additional person to work a shoot, a copyright license for publications, a model release, and a location release. And contracts don’t have to be long, complicated, or riddled with crazy legalese to be effective. I prefer to write contracts in straight-forward English and I wish more of my legal counterparts would get on board with this idea.

And contracts can be fun. Recently I saw an episode of Man v. Food where Adam Richman took on the Hellfire Challenge at Smoke Eaters – 12 wings covered in crazy hot sauce. Before he could begin the challenge he had to sign a waiver that required the person signing to acknowledge that “I am an idiot.”

You can put almost anything you want in your contract as long as it isn’t illegal. And if you downloaded your contract templates off the internet, that’s not a bad place to look for ideas, but you should at least consult an attorney to make sure it suits your needs before you start using it. If the contract is valid and you sign it, you’re stuck with the terms so you want to make sure you’re not opening yourself up to get screwed over.

If you need additional information about the minimum you need for a valid contract, please check out my video below or here.


If you want to chat about your contract needs, please send me an email or contact a business attorney in your community.

You can also connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn.
Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter for additional information about running your business more effectively. Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Simple Contracts with Foamy the Squirrel

Merry Christmas from our Ninja family to yours! by thotfulspot from Flickr

Merry Christmas from our Ninja family to yours! by thotfulspot from Flickr

If you want to create a contract, the minimum you need are three things.

  1. An Offer
  2. Acceptance of the Offer
  3. Consideration

Consideration is a legal term for a “bargained-for exchange,” which is a give-and-take between the parties. And it has to be an exchange that is reasonable. You probably have consideration if you want to sell your car for the Kelley Blue Book value vs selling it for 2 cents.

Check out this Foamy cartoon that appears to create a contract (I heart Foamy):

Here’s the contract offer I heard: Germaine will get Foamy a ninja for Christmas in exchange for shutting up about his disappointment over the ninja gig. And Foamy accepted with the caveats that the Ninja not be American unless it’s Chuck Norris and the penalty for not delivering a ninja would be that thugs get to rape Germaine with her own severed limbs.

Was there consideration? That’s up for debate. Foamy can be pretty awesomely obnoxious. I can see someone offering a higher ticket item to make him shut up. The big problem I see if you can’t make a contract for something that is illegal. Owning a person is illegal which could be one interpretation of the contract’s terms. Foamy’s caveat about the severed limbs obviously doesn’t hold water.

Check how the contract was executed:

It sounds like Germaine was blackmailed into giving Foamy a ninja, which arguably makes this whole exchange invalid since she was afraid for her life and not acting to get the bargained for exchange. Setting that aside, I can see consideration in exchanging a toy for getting someone to shut up. Foamy could argue that both parties knew that he was bargaining for a real, breathing, human ninja, but that would make the contract invalid since owning a person is illegal. In the end, I think Foamy should take his plush ninja and be happy he got a present.

Happy Ninja Christmas Everyone!

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Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.