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Why We All Need Written Agreements

A handshake is not enough

I have a confession to make. I should have known better, but then, it’s always after the fact that we learn what we should already know. Years ago, a friend of mine and I agreed to collaborate on a book. Sadly, though, we had no written agreement. He was to be the principal author, and I was to be the editor. We agreed on the schedule for the work to be done—by him and by me. He was to provide the content, and I was to edit and design the book. He was to be the named author and was to get 60% of the royalties.

Time passed; roles changed. As he missed deadlines, I wrote content to fill in the holes and stay on schedule. By the time the book was ready for the press, I’d done nearly 60% of the writing, not including most of the editing. But my friend refused to change the terms of our verbal agreement, and since the book was about to go to press, I smiled and sucked it in.

There are lessons here that I want to share with you.


Lessons Learned

  1. Always have a written agreement before you start to work. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a friend will agree to a friendly revision of the contract that takes into account your additional contributions. Treat your partnership as a business arrangement. A contract protects relationships and doesn’t destroy them.

  2. Define the work to be done and the timetable for it. Mission creep doesn’t only happen on the battlefield. It’s even more likely to happen when working on a creative project.

  3. Make clear what happens when one of you doesn’t live up to the agreement. You can’t always protect yourself when things go wrong. However, you can include language that defines what will happen when a problem arises or when the roles and relationships change.

  4. Consider carefully the value of your work -- what you’ll earn, when you will get it, and how you will be credited. The more work you contribute, the more money or recognition you should receive. Don’t assume that you’ll be able “to work it out” after it’s all done. Your partner won’t remember the extra time and talent you contributed in the same way you do.


Check your enthusiasm at the door.

  • Don’t let your enthusiasm for the job get in the way of thinking about it realistically.

  • An agreement is a form of negotiation. When you give up something you care about (money, time for the work, recognition, control, etc.), make sure you get something in return. You’ll be trying to strike a balance between your needs and those of the other partner.

  • Have a friend. associate or lawyer look at the agreement before you sign it. You need an objective and realistic review.

For more help, take a look at our Quick Guide on Agreements and Contracts. You’ll find there basic scenarios, snippets from contracts to illustrate some of the issues you’re likely to face, as well as links to generic agreements and links to commentary by others. Or make an appointment for an Office Hour.

Don’t sign anything until you’re sure you understand what you’re agreeing to.


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