Friday 12 August 2011

Learned my legal lesson.

            We all know good lawyer jokes of varying degrees.  There is a one-act play that features a lawyer defending himself in Hell, trying to ascertain what crime he committed that condemns him to spend an eternity in damnation.  After much speculation and wordy legaleze, the devil presiding over his case finally states: "You passed the bar."
            All kidding aside, I've recently come to learn how invaluable they are. (Lawyers, not devils.)
            A few years ago I was involved in a writing project with a good friend and fellow writer.  He managed to secure a good deal and his manager was going to represent us all.  That in itself proved to be a conflict of interest.  The manager e-mailed drafts of many contracts and other agreements.  I wasn't educated in legal contracts and I didn't understand the wording of it all.  My good friend and collaborator told me what it all meant in a nutshell over the phone.  Still I wasn't sure.  I thought I should get someone to look it over.  The problem was, I had just bought a house, had a small daughter to look after, and didn't have extra money kicking around to pay a lawyer for legal advice.  Add to that my co-writer calling me up the very next day, frantically stating, "If you don't sign that by 5pm today, they're going to replace you.  I'm just trying to watch your back.  If you don't sign, you'll be left out in the cold."
            I didn't know then what I know now: it is your legal right to have adequate time to have a lawyer look at anything that will be legally binding.  If anyone puts an unreasonable time limit on it or tries any sort of pressuring, it's usually because they have something to hide and know that a lawyer will spot it.  But this was my friend of over ten years.  We had worked so hard together for so long.  He knew I had a child to support.  He said he was watching my back.  He wouldn't screw me.  Right?
            So I trusted my friend and co-writer, and I signed.
            I'm sure you can guess what happened next.  I was screwed.  The language in those agreements was so vague and so open to interpretation that I was not only screwed, I was royally screwed.  They are so badly worded that, I have found out much later, some of these agreements actually don't contain information in them that all parties assumed they contained.  No lawyer would have allowed me to sign them.  But it was too late.  I signed in good faith and that faith was totally misplaced.  Greed does strange things to people and friendship offers no protection from it.
            No matter what type of collaboration one is getting into, everything should be put in writing.  Gone are the days of a handshake partnership, because in the end it comes down to your word against theirs and if there is nothing in writing, there is no protection for either party.
            What would I have done differently?  Perhaps borrowed money for a lawyer like my wife had suggested at the time.  In my case, getting into a professional writing agreement, had I only known about the Authors Guild Advocacy ( that has a variety of services and resources.  For other artists here in Toronto (and all of Ontario) there is ALAS (Artists' Legal Advice Services).  ALAS has provided summary legal advice to artists, actors, musicians, dancers, writers and filmmakers for many years.  Though these volunteer lawyers and students cannot represent you in court or draft up a contract, they can inform you of your legal rights and steer you in the right direction.  See their website for details.  For artists in the United States visit:
            There ARE economical ways out there to help you protect yourself.  I thought it was too much at the time.  But in the end, not having a lawyer has cost me more.  Far, far more.

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