Contract Amendments – Always in Writing

Signature by Sebastien Wiertz from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When a lawyer writes a contract for a client, it usually includes provisions that say that the all the terms of the agreement are contained in the document and all changes to the contract must be in writing. It may look something like this:

This Agreement is the entire understanding between the Parties concerning the subject of this Agreement. This Agreement replaces and supersedes any and all prior oral or written agreements and discussions between the Parties on that subject. All amendments to this Agreement must be in writing and signed by the Parties.

Contracts are relationship management documents. They keep everyone on the same page to prevent problems down the line or to help resolve problems when they occur. One of the challenges I encounter with contract clients is they often don’t follow the contract they signed and amend the agreement that is documented only in an email exchange, or worse, a undocumented verbal agreement.

Always Get It In Writing
The purpose of the “entire agreement” clause is to put all the terms of the contract in a single document. All written amendments should be stored with the original agreement – in hard copy and/or electronically, so if there is a question or dispute, the parties only need to review the single or amended document. They don’t have to piece together the contract from the parties’ communications and actions.

If you don’t get your amendments in writing, you’re asking for trouble. There could be confusion about what the change is, or worse, the other side could deny the existence of an amendment and screw you over. Remember, the law does not care about what you know, only what you can prove. If you don’t get your amendments in writing, and you have an “entire agreement” clause, if you have to go to court, the judge could say the amendment doesn’t exist.

Contract Amendments Can Be Easy
Why don’t people put their contract amendments in writing. I suspect it’s because they think it will be a hassle, cause a delay in a project, be time-consuming, or maybe they don’t even think to put in it writing because “it’s not a big deal.” In general, contracts exist, not for when things go right, but when they go wrong. What you think is a minor verbal change when both sides are getting along can become a big problem if things turn sour.

If you spend $100s or $1,000s to have a lawyer draft your contract, don’t revise it without their involvement. You’ve invested time and money to protect your interests. You don’t want to inadvertently throw that away with a damaging and undocumented revision.

Contracts are your Friends
These are some of my guidelines when it comes to reading and drafting contracts:

  • Never sign a contract you don’t understand. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
  • Whomever writes a contract does so for their or their client’s benefit. Keep that in mind when a contract is written by the other side. (Lawyers have an obligation to represent their clients zealously.)
  • Substantial business contracts should always be reviewed by a lawyer to ensure it’s complete and protects your interests.

A contract should be written to protect everyone involved – to make sure everyone understands and agrees to the same course of action.

I’m constantly reviewing and drafting all types of contracts for clients. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, 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.

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.

Severability: Lifesaver of Contracts

Cut out and collect! by Rob Brewer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Cut out and collect! by Rob Brewer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Part of my job as a lawyer is writing and reviewing contract. I love writing contracts – you put in creative and crazy clauses as long as they’re legal. I get many clients who draft their own agreements or get a contract from a peer or template website (shudder) and ask me to review it.

Most clients do an adequate job getting the basics terms into the document – offer, acceptance, and consideration – but where they falter is boilerplate legalese that every contract should have. (I swear we don’t put this stuff in there just to make it look fancy. It serves valuable purposes.) One of the most important provisions people who draft their own contracts forget is severability.

A severability clause saves a contract in the event that one of the provisions is invalid or illegal. It lets the party (or the court) cut out the invalid provision and allow the remaining terms stand as the contract. Here’s a simple severability clause I’ve used in other contracts:

If any provision of this Agreement is held invalid by a court of competent jurisdiction, such invalidity shall not affect the enforceability of any other provisions contained in this Agreement, and the remaining portions of this Agreement shall continue in full force and effect. If a provision is found to be invalid, the Parties hereby request that the intention of the invalid provision be upheld wherever possible.

 

So what happens if your contract doesn’t have a severability clause?

If all the terms of your agreement are legal and valid, nothing. You don’t need a severability clause to save it.

If you don’t have a severability clause and you have a term in the agreement that’s invalid, it could invalidate the entire contract. (Yeah, that’s bad.)

So if you’re in a situation where you have written contract with someone, and you think they’ve violated it, you could sue them for breach of contract (assuming the contract allows for this). If the alleged breacher shows the court that there’s an invalid provision in the contract and no severability clause, the court could declare that the entire contract invalid. If that happens, there’s no written contract between you, which means there might not be a legally-binding agreement. If that’s the case, there can’t be a breach – and you just lost your case.

Severability clauses are short provisions that can have a big impact in a contract dispute. It’s one of the provisions I include whenever I draft a contract and one of the first provisions I look for when reviewing an agreement for a client, especially if there’s a suspected breach.

I always caution people who look to friends, colleagues, or the internet for free contract templates or who draft their own documents. At the very least have a lawyer review your agreement before you start using a document to make sure it addresses your needs and protects your interests.

If you need help with a contract or are looking for more information about contracts, 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.

Kesha v. Sony – Cautionary Contract Tale

Microphone by Photo Cindy from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Microphone by Photo Cindy from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, a New York Court refused to nullify the contract between recording artist Kesha and Sony, despite Kesha’s allegations that she was drugged and raped in 2006 by her producer, Luke Gottwald (a.k.a. Dr. Luke). Gottwald has not been charged with this crime. Kesha admitted she’s afraid of Gottwald, but she said if she doesn’t work with him (even though Sony offered to give her another producer), she’s worried Sony won’t promote her music properly. If everything Kesha said is true, she is trapped in a situation where she has to risk her personal safety for professional success.

Why Sony Won
The reason Sony won this case appears to be basic contract law – the verbiage of the contract wouldn’t allow for the change. When it comes to creating a contract, it’s a relatively low bar to clear to have a legally binding contract. And if the parties want to change the provisions later, they may only be able to do so under limited circumstances, such as by mutual agreement. If the contract is valid and the other side is not open to making changes, you’re stuck with the verbiage and the commitments of the original agreement. I suspect that’s what happened in this situation; Kesha signed 6-album deal, and her allegations that her producer raped her isn’t sufficient to force Sony to change the terms or release her from the contract entirely.

Personally, I believe Kesha. It’s rare for a person to lie about being sexually assaulted. However, the law doesn’t have this luxury. The court can only make decisions based on what the parties can prove, so without a conviction or a confession, the court can’t determine if her allegations is sufficient to release her from this contract.

Ke$ha by Becky Sullivan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Ke$ha by Becky Sullivan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Turn Back the Clock
Given that hindsight is 20/20, what might Kesha have done differently when negotiating her contract with Sony? I am not sure it was wise for either party to commit themselves to a 6-album deal. Perhaps it would have been better for the artist to only commit to 2 albums and then renegotiate. Given Kesha’s young age when she signed with Sony, perhaps she, and other young artists, should have provisions geared towards their personal safety such as cameras that record all meetings and security or at least a personal representative all times that she’s working as well as provisions that address physical and emotional abuse. I also wonder if it wouldn’t have been prudent for both sides to have a provision that required regular drug testing to help prevent artists from getting into trouble and from being taken advantage of by people who should be protecting them.

What Could Kesha do Now?
Since a Kesha appears to be legally obligated to work with Sony and her alleged rapist, what should she do now to protect herself? Her safety should be the top priority. In regards to Gottwald, Kesha should never be alone with him. She should have security at her side at all times when he’s present. Gottwald should not be permitted to be within 10 feet of her, be able to contact her directly by phone or using any electronic means, or for any reason except as professionally necessary. I’m also not opposed to Kesha being legally armed (pepper spray, stun gun, etc.) if that makes her feel safer for the duration of her contract.

Contracts are a beautiful thing when they are written properly. However, we can see from this case how it can be a disaster when parties don’t plan for the worst-case scenarios. (I agree that it is an incredibly sad that artists have to consider the possibility that they will be physically harmed by their business partners, but this case shows that it is something that should be discussed at the negotiation table.) If you have a question about writing effective contracts, please contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

I’m also going to revive my newsletter later this year. If you want access to my exclusive content, please subscribe.