It should go without saying to never sign a contract you didn't read. We all know that. We're taught that from birth or least as soon as we comprehend what a contract is. Always read the contract first. And none of us have ever signed any contract we didn't read... right? Sure and money grows on trees so why are we even having this conversation? Well... because a lot of us have done just that... signed a contract without reading it. You know those contracts we sort of look at before we jump right on that signature line such as cable service, phone and other mundane items and maybe even an automobile or home purchase?
You'd never sign a work contract without reading it right? Of course not...that's different you say? Well... not really but we treat it that way as a matter of practicality. Legalese is everywhere in freelancing, Heck it's everywhere in the world. As an example let me get some legalese out of the way right now: (1.) I am not a lawyer. (2.) I've never attended law school. (3.) I've never played a lawyer on TV so as an average individual I think I am imminently qualified to give advice on the matter... as long as you keep the above points in mind.
So... have I ever signed a work contract I didn't completely read? Next question please! Will I ever do it again? I hope not! Nothing bad happened. In fact nothing happened at all... I just remember not reading it completely. I have a whole vault full of excuses... I was busy... it was a boilerplate contract from a previous employer... yada... yada... yada. I've just never forgotten it because I realized later how totally inept that decision was and how it upended all the previous years of never breaking this golden rule of contracts. This was YEARS ago too so you can see the impression it left on my psyche. I truly do hope to never do that again... as a matter of business practice.
So, let's take a look at a few of the rules I've picked up over the past twenty years or so of contracts, lawyers and such.
First rule: Never sign a contract you didn't write or have written with your approval. Ok... that's great, but most of us aren't in a position to do that so let's move on as we have no choice in this matter most of the time.
Rule 2: A contract you didn't write is NEVER in your favor. It may be neutral, but you can bet your week's food budget that if it tips in one direction... that direction won't be toward you.
Rule 3: Assume the worst case may actually happen and how you will deal with it to keep your integrity and reputation intact. Exit Plan is the key phrase here. No... we don't like to think about these things but the fact is you aren't always going to be a good match for an employer so make the best of it and refrain from anything that could nuke your reputation. In other words... be an adult when it comes down to it... don't burn ANY bridges.
Something to consider when it's affordable is to have a lawyer you trust read your contracts. Once you get rolling, you can devote a percentage of your contract income to legal services. From there, you negotiate with an attorney, a per contract price or retainer/deposit fee structure you can both live with. Once setup, you forward the contracts to your lawyer by email and they respond in the same manner. It's painless and removes doubt as to your obligations plus you get the bling of having an attorney and not fibbing... ok lying... when you tell someone your attorney will look it over.
Most of your work if not all of it should be covered by a contract if for nothing else YOUR protection and that mindset will serve you well into the future.