Getting legal can sometimes feel limiting and even a bit awkward so I wanted to try to ease some of that uncomfortability for those of you who can relate!
Most service-based industries require a contract to be set in place before work can begin and payment can be accepted. Sometimes, the verbage used in contracts can leave you feeling confused and wondering if you're actually protected in the event of dissatisfaction or disaster. I can relate to these feelings and it always leaves me a bit on the anxious side when I don't fully understand a clause within the contract - and I imagine that my clients feel the same way at times when I send over my contract for services!
In an effort to help make sense of what role contracts play, here are my top three things I want you to know about contracts before you sign one!
1. They set an expectation.
A well-written contract will allow you to develop an expectation of when services will begin, when they should be completed, and when and how payment is due. They will typically include a timeline that you can reference throughout the service and instructions on how to obtain your products if something is being produced. For example: within my contracts I include session/event start times and end times, the number of hours of service purchased, the location of their session, how many downloads (if any) are included with their session, and when they can expect their full gallery to be ready. I also include when my clients can expect to receive their final product and how they will obtain their images. This allows clients to set the expectation of starting at x-time, ending at x-time, and receiving their images on xx-xx-xx date. Clients know what to realistically expect and can trust that, by being legally bound with a contractual document, these expectations will be met.
2. They protect both parties
I know it can feel a bit scary when you're spending a lot of money on a service and the provider expects payment upfront, before the service begins. In the back of your head, you may wonder...
What if they don't show up?
What if they cancel on me?
What if I'm unhappy?
...and countless other thoughts that make you want to back out. But here's the thing: with a contract in place, BOTH of you are protected! If your service provider decides not to show up after being paid in advance and you have a contract that outlines the work that was to be done and when that work should have begun, you can take legal action to get your money back. It seems a bit obvious when you're not in the middle of signing a contract with a big dollar sign next to it but when you're in that moment, all of those thoughts of doubt and expecting regret can invade your mind and make you completely forget that signing a contract is protecting you against someone taking your money and running off with it.
Now, all of this being said, make sure that the provider with whom you are signing is reputable and established. Unfortunately, there are people out there posing as providers, ready to take your money and run, using a contract with a false name or entity. Be sure to do your research before signing anything and ALWAYS ask questions if you have them! Your service provider should be able to confidently explain all of the clauses in their contract and if anything feels off about it, contact your lawyer before committing. To be cliche, you'd rather be safe than sorry!
3. They are only as effective as your willingness to enforce them.
Contracts are put in place to protect. Sometimes they can be extreme in the name of protection and ultimately, your willingness to enforce a contract is what makes it effective. There are moments where you may run into a wildly minor breach and in those times, it is up to you to decide if it's more important to legally enforce a contract or to be reasonable about it and try to compensate for any loss or unmet expectation.
To be clear, you should always assume that what is in the contract is exactly what is to be expected. There is never a reason to think otherwise. And while we're at it, always assume that the other party will legally enforce the contract at any time. NEVER allow yourself to get to the point where you think a breach is okay, no matter how minor you may think it is. Live with the expectation that, in the event of a breach, legal action will be taken against you.
Now, that being said, I think from a provider's point of view it is important for us to really take into consideration how important some of the clauses are in our contracts and how important it is to enforce them. A major example for me is the famous Uncle Bob. For those of you who may not know who (or what) Uncle Bob is, it is the name given by the photography community to anyone at a photo session or event where professional photography has been contracted who has taken it upon themselves to be the unofficial photographer for the day and is constantly in the way of the actual professional photographer hired to work at the event or session. My contract has a clause that specifically states that I am to be the only photographer at any event for which I am hired, effectively protecting me agaisnt having to deal with Uncle Bobs - right?
I have included this same clause to every wedding client of mine and still, at almost every wedding, there is an Uncle Bob who has their phone or camera out during the entire ceremony and reception (sometimes even formals), taking the shots I have set up myself and getting in the way of the shots I have specifically been hired to capture. While this does make me want to pull my hair out, and I could even go as far as informing my clients that their guest is breaching their contract with me, I don't. Why? Because while I am hired to shoot this event as a professional photographer - a vendor - this Uncle Bob is here because they are important to the couple and the couple is important to them. Uncle Bobs are never there to be a nuisance (well, usually they aren't!) and they are simply capturing what is special to them, just like every other person with a camera - ever! In an attempt to be reasonable, I will usually just ask them to step aside or to hold on a few more minutes until I can get the shot I need, and then I will sometimes even let them in to take it themselves! Why? Because I am a reasonable person.
So why have that clause in my contract, then?
Well, some Uncle Bobs make our job literally impossible. They will stand in the way, they won't respect our space, and they will even make their way into the most precious and important shot of the day (with their phone or camera up to their face at that!). In these moments, my contract protects me. If I miss a shot due to an Uncle Bob, I can use my contract to defend me because I was supposed to be the only person taking photos at the event.
So you see, they do protect you. But you do have to decide it is time to enforce the terms in the contract and whether you have to enforce them personally or legally.
So there you have it - my top three things I want you to know about contracts! It's important to remember that every service provider is different and will enforce their contracts differently. A contract can be a great tool for deciding whether or not you want to commit to services and also what you can expect from beginning to end when you do commit!