Avoid Litigation: Contracts and Timing

Water wheel close-up by Edward Webb from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The most efficient way I’ve seen to avoid problems in a business contract situation is to set up the relationship between the parties in such a way that each side is forced to perform to get what they want from the other side. Just like a water wheel feeds the machine that keeps the wheel turning, the parties should be compelled to give the other side what they need.

Contract = Relationship Management Document
A contract is a merely a document that outlines a relationship between parties – what each side must do, and what they get in return. Every contract should have a dispute resolution provision that outlines how the parties will resolve problems if they occur. In a perfect world, the parties will never need to resort to this clause.

While a good contract will have a thoughtful dispute resolution clause, a great contract will structure the parties’ relationship in such a way that neither side can fathom breaching it.

Structure the Relationship to Feed Everyone’s Needs
When I begin work on a new contract, I ask my client to paint me a word picture of the people involved and the relationship between them. I try to understand not only what each side is giving and getting, but also their motivations.

One of the obvious potential problems in a contract relationship is that one side will perform their part to the benefit of the other, and the other side doesn’t reciprocate as required in the agreement. This may be situation where one side takes your money and runs, or conversely, you do work for your client and they don’t pay you after they’ve received your work product.

The best way to avoid this situation is to set up the work flow so that each side doesn’t get what they want until the other side has done what they promised to do. For many entrepreneurs who are professional creatives, I recommend that they write their contracts to state that the client won’t receive the final product until their bill has been paid. Likewise, for photographers, I recommend that the contract state that the client won’t see the proofs until they’ve paid for their shoot in full.

Please Pay Here by Steven Depolo from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Real Life Example
I recently worked with a graphic designer who is a smart entrepreneur with a brilliant contract. I’m creating my first online course and hired her to create the logo. Per our contract, I paid 50% up front and she got to work. She designed me a brilliant logo that fits the course and my personality. She said she’d send the final files when she received the balance.

That email came at the beginning of a week when I wasn’t home where the company checkbook lives. I told her this and she said she didn’t mind waiting until I could send payment. (Did I mention she’s a friend?) I was happy she held her boundaries to make sure she got paid before she sent the final work product. It’s not that I wouldn’t have paid her, but it was the right thing to do as a business owner.

If you choose not to write your contract with these provisions, you may be in a situation where you have go after the other side for payment or performance, possibly hiring a lawyer to write a demand letter, or taking the other side to court. If it’s a relatively low-dollar amount, you may end up in small claims court where you may get a judgment in your favor, but you still need to collect and the amount of time and energy involved to go through the process may make you question whether it was worth it.

This is why a good business lawyer is an investment for your business. They can see the potential pitfalls in your business and help you avoid them and advocate for your rights when necessary. If you need help with writing a contract that fits the needs of your business, you can contact me directly or a social media lawyer in your community. I post about these issues 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.

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.