How To Save Thousands Of Dollars In Legal Expenses

At one time or another, every organization will need to seek legal advice and create legally binding contracts. But unless your company or nonprofit has money to burn, there’s no need to start the process with only a checkbook in hand on a vague journey of exploration in an attorney’s office.

Odds are that you have already identified the situations in your business that you need to protect with legal paperwork. These usually have to do with the promises you are making about the goods you will deliver or services you will perform in exchange for payment from a customer. So those are the basics of any contract – identifying the parties and the agreement and spelling out the obligations each party owes the other.

Of course, depending on the type of business you’re in, there are all sorts of factors to consider. If you do short, simple jobs, such as cleaning carpets or repairing household plumbing, you can probably get by with just a work order agreement that describes the work you’ll do and the payment your customer agrees to give you for that work.

More complex business arrangements naturally require more complex agreements. For example, if you’re running a business that creates or uses software applications and/or media (such as a website design company, a software development company, or even a freelance photography business), your legal agreement must specify who owns all the software and media you will assemble or create, as well as describing the usage rights for each piece and the legal obligations to the owner.

If your project is complex (such as constructing a building or creating a computer network), you may need multiple agreements that describe each portion of the project and specify periodic payments and approvals when certain mileposts have been reached. And of course, in every agreement, all rights and responsibilities must be spelled out in that special legal language understood by attorneys and courts.

All this legal paperwork can seem intimidating to non-lawyers. But if you could see through the closed doors of legal firms and watch what contract attorneys do on their computers, you would see that they usually start off with basic forms that pertain to the general situation, and then they adapt it to the specific agreement and participating parties. In fact, attorneys often have lower paid paralegals adapt the basic contracts and then charge you for that time at the attorney’s billing rate.

So here’s the secret to saving tons of money in legal fees: you can start off with those basic forms (the same forms that many law firms purchase themselves to save costs and writing time), too. Where? You can probably locate a few forms on various internet sites and sometimes in business supply stores, but if you need a variety of forms and contracts, you should check out a pre-designed contract pack of templates. Contract packs contain a wide variety of legal agreements for all sorts of businesses and situations. In fact, many law firms have been using pre-written contract packs for decades.

The contract templates in a contract pack contain the accepted standard legal language and formatting for many situations. They are basic word-processing files, so you can easily edit them on any computer to meet your particular needs. You can use the same template again and again, changing it only slightly for each client. Getting started with a contract pack can save your organization big bucks in the long haul.

Why pay top dollar for a legal contract to be written for you when your lawyer may be using the same kinds of templates you have access to already? Why not do the initial work yourself and then hand your lawyer a draft contract for final review and edits?

In addition to having a pre-written agreement to start with you will help educate yourself on potential legal issues you may have to deal with in your business better preparing you for a more efficient consultation with your lawyer.

It’s usually not wise to entirely avoid the use of legal advice. Pre-written forms cannot completely replace the need for an attorney. Local laws and regulations vary, and every business situation is different. So you’re always advised to start off with the legal template that best suits your situation, edit it as needed to explain the particular project you’re working on and describe the rights and responsibilities of all the parties involved, and then take your customized version to an attorney for any final finessing the agreement may need. That way, you’ll pay for minutes or hours instead of hours or days of an attorney’s time.

That’s how you’ll save thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The Legal Hurdles of Adapting A Novel or Book

Here’s a question I recently received from a student:

The Question:

Given that I have very few connections to the industry, how would you best recommend moving forward if I have a novel in mind I’d like to adapt? Is it necessary to have a literary agent? Is it best to go through the publishers to find out about the rights? What would help me to get my foot in the door?

My Answer:

Most likely, novels by major authors will have already been snapped up by people with much deeper pockets than you have. However, older or lesser known novels and non-fiction books by less famous authors may very well be available. And some very old novels even exist in the public domain, which means you can use them without optioning anything!

Contacting The Subsidiary Rights Department

The way to start is by contacting the Subsidiary Rights Department at the book or novel’s publisher. You can usually find the contact information for the Subsidiary Rights Department down in the fine print at the bottom the publisher’s website, or by calling the publisher directly.

Break Out Your 1990′s Technology

Believe it or not, many Subsidiary Rights Departments still require contact via fax, so unless your publisher accepts email requests, go ahead and crank back the calendar to 1994, break out your old fax machine, and get ready to rock.

The fax (or email) you send should include the following:

Your Name

Your Company Name (if Applicable)

Your Address

Your Fax Number

Title of The Novel

Author’s Name

Publisher

Publication Date

ISBN Number

A Request To Know Who Controls The Film Rights For The Novel

A Blank Space For Them To Write That Person Or Company’s Contact Info

Make sure your return fax number is printed clearly on the form, so they know who to send it back to!

Contacting The Rights Holder

Once you have the name of the person, company, or agent that controls the film rights, you can go ahead and reach out to them (usually by phone or email) about optioning the novel or book.

What The Heck is An Option?

Essentially an option is a legal agreement that gives you the right to buy or sell the film rights for a book or novel at an agreed upon price. Most options last for a year, and give you an option to extend for a second year for a fixed additional payment. Depending on the perceived value of the book or novel you’re optioning, an option can cost a fortune, or as little as a dollar.

The option is the thing that gives you the right to actually SELL the screenplay you write based on somebody else’s book or novel.

It’s not your job to know the ins and outs of options. When the time comes, you will hire a lawyer to walk you through the option agreement. For right now, just concentrate on contacting the rights holder, finding out if the film rights are available, and asking if he or she would be willing to work out a “free” (technically $1) or inexpensive option with you so that you can adapt the book or novel into screenplay form.

Your Pitch

If you’re like most writers, you probably don’t have a ton of money to spend on an option. If the novel’s been sitting on the shelf for years, the rights holder may simply be delighted to know that someone is interested. But the chances are, you’re going to have to do a little bit of selling of yourself in order to convince the rights holder that it’s in their best interest to put their project in your hands.

So that means before you pick up the phone, you want to have a clear take on the material, and an exciting pitch for how you’d transform it into a marketable screenplay, and maybe some ideas for big stars who could play the lead role once your screenplay is finished, and how your version of the adaptation would be perfect for those actors.

Remember, You Are Bringing Real Value To The Project

Generally, if the film rights for a book or novel are still available, it means the rights holder has already done everything in their power to sell the project as a film and failed. That means your script could give them a second chance to show someone how this story really could make a great movie and turn it from another project sitting in their files into a hot commodity that can bring them lots of money.

If you’re going to risk a year of your life writing that script for them with no upfront compensation, it’s reasonable to expect them to give you a year long option and the rights to extend for a second year for a reasonable amount of money.

What If They Want You To “Audition”

If the rights holder asks you for a short treatment or a writing sample, it’s probably worth your while go ahead and send it. But don’t under any circumstances start writing a screenplay until you legally control the option on the material.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve known who have “auditioned” by writing a script with the hopes that a rights holder would like it, only to have the rights holder sell the book or novel out from under them- often for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the script.

Why You Need A Lawyer

Remember that you only control the rights as long as you control the option, which means that once the option expires, you can’t sell your script without the author’s approval. That means you want a real entertainment lawyer to draw up your option agreement for you (even if you’re optioning the story for a dollar).

Think about the time you’re going to invest in this project. Do you really want to stake everything on an option agreement you pulled off the internet? You need an expert to protect your investment, and make sure you can do something with it when it’s finished.

Public Domain Books And Novels

As you can tell, when rights holders are involved, optioning a book or novel can be a challenging process for a young writer. However, if the book you’re interested in adapting was published in the United States prior to 1923, most likely you don’t have to go through ANY of this! Because most likely that book is in the public domain.

For this reason, if you’re interested in adaptation, one of the best places to start is with old books that you can use as you like without any option agreement.

The rules of public domain can be complex, so make sure to double check that the book is in the public domain before you start writing.

Writing Your Adaptation

Of course, optioning the book or novel, or discovering the public domain book you want to adapt is just the beginning. The process of making your adaptation is an art in itself.

Legal Disclaimer: I am a screenwriter and not a lawyer. Though I hope that this information will be useful to you, please be aware that no part of this article should be considered legal advice. For such advice please consult an entertainment attorney.

The Legal Environments

Firms, as societal entities, operate in particular economic, political, and legal environments. The legal environment is a result of legislative intervention by the government (state) and the positive practices that are recognized and sanctioned by the positive law. Historically, the legal environment has usually been nationally defined, although scholars have tried to group legal systems into various groups, based on their similarities and dissimilarities.

A student of this topic would usually argue that there are two basic groups of legal systems, which traditionally have been opposed: the Anglo-Saxon (Anglo-American) model and the continental European law. However, although both main systems of law may have their distinctive features listed, in fact there are far too many convergences in recent times. In the past the common law (Anglo-Saxon) model would be predominantly based on the precedents, and the continental European law would be primarily based on the codifications.

But, there is ever-increasing legislative activity in the Anglo-Saxon countries, with a number of codifications taking place as judiciary may uphold the consistency of court practice. In either system, a judge may take a stance to create a precedent, but the sources of precedent would differ significantly. Growing empirical literature has attempted to prove the overall superiority of the Anglo-Saxon model. Although it is evident that economies of Anglo-Saxon countries may be doing comparatively better than the others in the long run, it is not empirically corroborated that the growth sustained over a period of time may be directly attributed to the features of the legal system (legal environment).

Legal systems, although they may be classified into larger groups, are basically heavily influenced by national colors and experiences of legal development, especially in revolutionary environments (when there is abrupt change in the development). Scholars studying legal environments would focus more, nowadays, on judiciary independence from the state and the politicians. It is believed that if the judiciary protects consistently property rights, even from the state, the results of development will be better, and in the case-law system, judges historically have been more prone to uphold the sanctity of private property rights.

Ex post judging is far better in responding to local information, rather than the application of abstract law, regulating the principles. However, increasingly the common law countries are resorting to promulgating laws and codices, in order to better capture different areas of law. In the United States, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is probably the best example. The growth in legislative activity may also be seen as a sign of upcoming struggle between judiciary and legislative power for predominant societal influence. Most recently the discussion on “political delegation” would suggest that it is necessary to subsume, at least formally, all institutions of the state to the highest democratically elected body in the country (assembly, parliament, etc.), although that body is controlled exclusively by the politicians.

The literature has also defined a common law system as one in which judges exercise discretion to decide cases in independent and/or adaptive lawmaking ways, while in continental European countries the state would control judicial outcomes and the content of law as well. The basic premise of change between the two wider legal groups has been the perception as to what extent the judicial practice may influence the future legal decision taken by the court. It is a fact that in Anglo-Saxon countries precedents are a source of law and they have to be regarded in the future when the act is required in a similar situation. However, although in the continental European legal system judiciary practice is not a formal source of law, judges take into consideration the prior practice in order to ensure consistency in acting in the court and the country.

In comparative law, the literature is quite often focused on a set of five parameters, like (1) judicial incentives; (2) exogenous legal human capital; (3) the processing of litigant information into judicial error-reducing legal human capital; (4) the cost of producing evidence and legal arguments; and (5) the penalties (damages) levied in adjudication. Judicial incentives may be influenced by the way their independence is defined. Often in the analysis judicial independence features highly, especially as it is believed to be an important feature of the Anglo-Saxon model, which contributed to its better results. In the U.S. model, over 80 percent of serving judges are subject to some kind of election, reelection, or recall voting.

But even in the United States the upper echelons of judiciary are dependent on politicians who decide on their promotion to the highest offices. Similarly, in the continental European countries, the government may have a strong say in appointment of judges, especially in the case of higher courts. However, the very path of professional progression differs between European (especially French) and U.S. judges. In Europe, judges are often career civil servants, who have opted for the judiciary profession almost immediately upon graduation from the university; in the United States, judges are appointed from among practicing lawyers who have had more than 10 years of professional experience.

Comparative analysis of independence has shown more than a puzzle-judges should be independent, but the question is from whom? And, if one is independent, does it mean that he or she is also unbiased (objective)? Often it is assumed that judges, if not appointed by the government directly, will be critical of the government and look at the breaking of law made by the government in an unbiased manner. However, empirical research does not corroborate this claim. Some judges are more independent and unbiased in the way they operate than others, but it cannot be generalized as to what contributes to that. Another important feature is the relationship between precedents and statutes.

Anglo-Saxon law is believed to be based on a set of more or less harmonious precedents (stare decisis), while the continental European legal practices are based on the interpretation of law and the application of the abstract legal (statutory) rule to a concrete situation. However, even in the latter case there is a high level of consistency in judiciary practices, as the higher courts have the right of cassation and therefore for the performance of judges it is important that their decisions not be annulled and/or modified by the higher court. Therefore, even in the continental European legal systems, court practices are consistent, that is, jurisprudence constante.

At the far end, the issue is primarily behavioral-whether the judges will be expansive or rather conservative (narrow) in their apprehension of laws. Some recent empirical research has clearly shown consistency of judicial behavior across various systems. However, de jure legal practice is not a formal source of law in continental European legal systems, but, as already pointed out, will be seriously considered in the process of application of law. In both systems the vast majority of judges will opt not to rock the boat.