I am the stereotypical old style doctor, the last client or patient I normally help is myself. So I write this article as much to myself as to others. A few years ago I paid an electrical contractor several hundred dollars more than I originally planned because of mark-ups and “add-ons” which he claimed had been agreed-to but which I am sure were never discussed, much less agreed. In my case it was easier to pay him than to litigate but if I had done things wisely I would have written a short agreement before he started for both our benefits; which would have spelled out hourly rate, job expectations, materials prices (no mark-ups) and maximum project costs.
Contracts can be written or oral (verbal agreement); but written Contracts are far better because, one: it forces you to think about the terms to which you are agreeing; and two, common law assumes if it is not in writing then it was not part of the deal. But, it is usually worth the cost to pay an attorney for an hour’s worth of work to draft the document. Experienced attorneys not only have their own experience but also the experiences of their various clients from which to draw and make sure your contract is thorough.
If someone else has written the contract that you are asked to sign then I recommend hiring an attorney for one hour to review the contract and tell you what aggressive terms it might have or what protections it might leave out. I regularly review contracts for people who are being asked to sign but are worried about getting ripped-off. I also regularly consult with people who have already signed and have already been ripped-off and they want to know what rights they have under the contract they signed. Unfortunately in many of those cases these people have little or no protections because the default rule of contract law is that if you signed it you have read it and agreed to it (see above).
Again, I can use my own experience here. Don’t assume that the nice guy you made the agreement with will always be around to honor the verbal promises he made to you. A while back I entered into a five year contract that had a few standard terms which my vendor rep promised would not be applied to me. Three and one half years later he was gone and the product was no longer providing for my needs but the contract had an early termination clause which the company did not want to waive. I was lucky, I found an email from my old rep which proved we had agreed the fee was to be waived. The company knew I was a lawyer so they did not want to risk litigating. But I doubt they would have honored the email if I had not been an attorney. Again, the wise thing would have been for me to be more patient when we made the agreement and get him to change the paperwork before I signed it.
So, to summarize, an agreement of any sort is a contract; but a written contract is far more protective than an oral contract – assuming you understand the terms and have included protections. And don’t be in a rush to sign something; get it reviewed first. A good attorney is worth his price. But, as with any product or service, don’t be afraid to shop around and get recommendations for an attorney. Attorneys charge different rates and some are more experienced than others. But there are plenty of attorneys who will provide you great service at a fair price.