The Power of a Contract

One thing I have learned in my experience both as a freelancer and as an employee is that one’s value may be quite high, but one’s only paid what one negotiates for oneself. For some employees, negotiations are handled solely by a union, and if one wants to directly influence negotiations one must learn and become a part of the union structure. For just about everyone else, independent contractors and employees alike, the terms of “employment” are dictated by the contract(s) agreed to. What does this mean? It means that we must always be informed and alert. The terms that we agree to must cover our life expenses, our business expenses, and protect us as much as possible. There is no magic formula for evaluating whether it is a good idea for any of us to sign a contract or agree to a term. Make no mistake: Though it is incredibly common for people to be employed without a contract, or independently contracted without a contract, it is not wise. Dependent upon circumstances, even something as simple as an email dictating terms of an agreement may constitute a contract, and it is well worth having such agreement so there is no ambiguity.

For purposes of this blog post, we are assuming the reader is an independent contractor. The following items are items you seriously want to read and understand in any offer of employment or contract.

  • Non-compete clauses. Many contracts have these. Basically they say you will not work for clients of the company within a certain amount of time after leaving. Be very aware when signing contracts like this. Some non-competes dictate that you shall not work within a certain geographical area. Though we cannot be sure of the legal enforceability of such contract, we can be sure to review terms and have terms reworded to suit our needs. Do not skimp on negotiating with regard to these agreements and/or associated penalties for violating the clause.
  • Page rate or pay rate. This is an extensive area that you must do some mental work for. Do not simply set a rate. You want to set expedite rates, daily rates, rates for the copying of exhibits, the binding of transcripts, or the delivery of transcripts. You must do your best to anticipate the different situations that may come up in the scope of your duties. Will you be performing roughs? Will there be a minimum fee? Will there be an hourly or appearance fee on top of any other charge? Will there be a waiting fee? In the end, if a company refuses to pay you, the contract will guide a court, arbitrator, or regulatory entity in determining how you should be paid.
  • Hiring and firing terms. This is important for review because you must know where your duties begin and end. Are you obligated to provide services after a job has concluded? Is the “employer” obligated to hire you again for work on the same case? Is the client entitled to “discharge” you before the full service has been rendered and does that affect your pay? These terms can severely impact your bottom line and are not something you should ignore.

Now, having used the term employer, employment, et cetera, one may wonder what that’s about. To me, it is all employment, and all under the umbrella of employment for one simple reason: In this country with fairly few exceptions employment is at will. Employers can fire for any reason, no reason, or a made up reason, as long as it’s not an illegal reason. Independent contractors face this same issue and generally have even fewer rights under the law. Therefore it is imperative for every reporter to know and understand that their value may be much more than what they are paid, and that is directly tied to the deals they’ve made. You may be tempted to assume that whatever is being offered is whatever you’re worth. Don’t fall into this trap. Sell yourself, because the person hiring you will almost never offer you top dollar if they can get you to do the work for less money.

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