Tips for Handling Contract Legalese

What are some contract buzzwords I should be aware of?

These days, we sign large and complex contracts routinely. For example, have you signed an iTunes user agreement? A cell phone plan contract? A “terms and conditions” contract for software or use of a website? You may not understand everything that is written in the contract, but there are a few red flags that should grab your attention.

Watch out for clauses that provide that the contract will automatically renew without any input from, or notice to, you. You’re probably familiar with contracts of this type, as they have become ever more popular. Many streaming video websites, for example, have automatic renewal clauses in them. Many gym memberships have automatic renewal clauses as well. Be on the lookout for these, because you may not realize your contract includes this type of clause until you see it many months or even a year later, on your bank statement.

Another important phrase to be on the lookout for is early termination fees. This is especially true when it comes to purchasing a cell phone service contract, but this phrase can be found in other types of contracts as well. You’ll want to note exactly what the penalty is for leaving the agreement at an earlier date than you’ve agreed to.

In certain types of contracts, such as those for gym memberships you’ll want to be on the lookout for liability waivers. Is your gym telling you that they will not agree to be responsible even if they negligently injure you? Have you found this term in an agreement for your child’s summer camp? You’ll want to consider the implications of such waivers before agreeing to the terms.

Lastly, keep in mind that contracts now commonly use arbitration clauses. These are clauses that specify that your grievance with the company cannot be heard in a court of law, but rather via a process called arbitration. Arbitration is essentially a privatization of the court system. It is often significantly faster and cheaper, but at the same time questions of neutrality can be raised. Is the arbitrator being paid by your adversary? Keep this in mind if you see an arbitration clause.

Before signing contracts of importance, it is wise to consult with an experienced attorney who will guide you and protect your personal and/or business interests.