I doubt anyone reading this column would want to have brain surgery performed on them by a podiatrist. Nothing against podiatrists, but that is not their area of expertise.
Knowing and understanding the legal ramifications in contracts is important to a meeting professional, but it does not give that person the necessary background and experience of drafting agreements that will provide a solid road map to a successful event.
Generally speaking, legal documents require the oversight of an attorney. The unauthorized practice of law has tripped up many a quasiprofessional, most particularly in the real estate industry. But this does not mean that people should not write their own contracts. Rather, they should do so in a way that would pass legal muster, and then have an attorney make absolutely sure.
Standard Contract You might be tempted to have a standard or form contract at hand to start negotiations. But each meeting is unique, and one form can't fit all.
I recommend making a checklist of the clauses that you routinely use, have used or anticipate using in your contracts, noting which ones are likely to require revision to meet the specifics of the current event and which ones can be eliminated. For instance, a clause dealing with the Americans With Disabilities Act does not apply to any other country and, if included, shows a lack of professionalism and ignorance of the law.
Also, what constituted a good form last year -- or, for that matter, last week -- might not be appropriate to use today because of changes in the marketplace, the law or your current needs.
The role of the planner is to put all the pieces together, showing what the business transaction should look like, laying out the responsibilities of both parties and creating a blueprint for the event. The words on paper then should reflect to the nth degree what that deal is. Many of the straightforward logistical issues don't really require the oversight of a lawyer. But questions of indemnification, limitation of liability, how formulas are developed for attrition and cancellation, force majeure clauses, choice of law, alternative dispute resolution and other more technical issues require the expertise of a qualified attorney. You don't want to get it wrong when determining what will constitute performance and liability on the part of both parties.
Expertise Even when you are happy with your agreement, it is still advisable to run it by a qualified attorney.
Preferably, that lawyer will know and understand the dynamics of the industry in general and your needs in particular. Similar to choosing the right doctor for the current problem, you do not want to have a lawyer who specializes in estate planning addressing the issues relating to the contract that you are going to use in the hospitality industry.
While every lawyer starts as a generalist, we all develop specialties or areas of expertise. It's always less expensive to go to a professional who knows the territory than it is to go to one who needs to be educated through the process in order to represent your best interests. Using a lawyer who charges $100 an hour but takes four hours to do what an experienced, $400-an-hour lawyer can do in 30 minutes is a false economy.
And remember: A good lawyer not only will have the requisite legal expertise but also the business acumen to help you get the deal done. After all, it is a lot easier -- and cheaper -- to keep you out of trouble than it is to get you out of trouble.