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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Get It In Writing

A lawyer’s secrets to better contracts

Expect The Unexpected
When thinking about what should or shouldn’t be in your standard contract, it’s often best to consider the sorts of problems you’ve encountered with clients in the past and how those problems were resolved. By expecting the unexpected and addressing those issues in your contract, you may be able to avoid disputes that would land you in court. If nothing else, you’ll give yourself better than a fighting chance if the matter does go to court.

After shooting a wedding earlier this year, Clarksville, Tennessee-based wedding photographer Kandice Denton learned the hard way what can happen when you fail to expect the unexpected. After the ceremony at a church with a particularly dark interior, Denton decided to stage the family portraits outside in front of the church. Although she intended to go back inside the church to photograph the bride and groom at the altar, she never got the opportunity. Instead, the limousine driver insisted that he needed to leave, and he rushed the happy couple away.

Trouble started five weeks later when the proofs from the wedding were ready. Shortly after the proofs went online, the bride called to say how disappointed she was with the photos and requested that the proofs be taken offline. The bride’s mother went even further, claiming that the missed photographs ruined the wedding. To make matters worse, Denton has now discovered “bad reviews everywhere,” which she knows are attributable to the bride and the bride’s mother. While Denton ultimately resolved the matter by agreeing to restage the altar photographs (which would have been staged but for the impatient limousine driver) and staging a few other images the couple didn’t request until after the wedding, such a resolution doesn’t change the negative reviews or the impact that such reviews can have on a photographer’s business.

While it might be easy to chalk up Denton’s experience to a spiteful bridezilla, any photographer who has worked with a difficult client knows that bad reviews can come from the least likely of places. If Denton’s contract had included a non-disparagement clause, however, or a clause detailing how complaints must be handled, she might have avoided some of the spiteful reviews and the residual damage that such reviews may cause in the future.

Given the recent economic climate, it’s becoming increasingly common to find that clients are trying to justify their refusal to pay by claiming dissatisfaction with the services provided. Sadly, this trend appears to be widespread, impacting far more than just the photographic industry. However, a well-drafted contract can help prevent clients from attempting to justify their refusal to pay or require that clients give up the benefits received should they elect to cancel the contract.

Glenburn, North Dakota-based Michelle Rudland encountered problems with a client after photographing a high-school senior for a graduation announcement. Some time after the photo session, the client demanded the images from the session on disc. In response, Rudland offered the full-resolution images at her standard rate. Rudland also offered additional products and services in an effort to appease the client. When her efforts to appease the client failed, Rudland agreed to provide a full refund subject to the client’s return of everything Rudland provided. The client refused, and instead, reported Rudland to the local Better Business Bureau. To add insult to injury, the client’s son even posted a message on Rudland’s Facebook page attacking her character.

Part of Rudland’s problem can be traced to the relatively simple contract that she used. While the contract established the price and what the client was to receive, it didn’t address Rudland’s policies regarding image files, how disputes and complaints were to be resolved or handled, or Rudland’s refund policy. For the first time in 15 years, Rudland felt that she needed a better contract.

“Glenburn is a small town where most business is still done on a handshake,” says Rudland. Now, however, Rudland is in the process of revising her contracts to include time frames for complaints, time frames in which proofs must be reviewed and final selections made, and the details of her refund policy.

According to Rudland, “If it can happen in Glenburn, it can happen anywhere.”


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