Guy, the two times I found myself with a legal situation on my hands were when I didn't spend the time & money to work with a attorney on the contracts. Although it's good to get some preexisting contracts from other people so you can see how they approached certain types of deals, this is not an area where you want to cut-and-paste. As the company owner you have a fiduciary relationship with the company and any legal judgement can easily spill over into your personal finances. (I'm speaking from a U.S. perspective, so things may be different in the UK.)
We eventually got to the point where we did contracts without running ever single one of them past an attorney, but this was only after I had been schooled in every clause and what it meant and what it didn't mean. It also helped that my VP had been a paralegal for 14 years to one of the top attorneys in Silicon Valley, and she knew when we were making minor changes and when we had just stepped over the line and needed to make a call.
A few Rules of Thumb for contracts:
- It's your company, so use your contracts, not the customer's. I have had a couple of Big Companies insist I use theirs -- I walked away from both of them and each proved out over time to be a very good decision.
- Unless you are absolutely certain you understand all of the implications of a change in wording in your own contract, do not do this on the fly in the customer's boardroom.
- Although you may think the most important part of your business is writing code or designing things in Photoshop, the place where you can really screw up is in badly written contracts.
- Contract law is quite different from other types of law and you don't want to work with just any old lawyer. In fact, the style and content of contracts varies considerably from one industry to the next, so ideally you want someone who has done considerable work in your industry.
- One thing we did that worked well was to preface our contracts with a one paragraph Statement of Intent. This is a bit unusual, but several of our customers said they appreciated having things laid out so clearly. In any future dispute about the contract, the court will make a decision based on the intent of the parties at the time of signing.
- All of that said, strive for contracts that are written in plain language. Over the years we got rid of as much legalese as we could, while still making sure that the language was legally viable.
One final thought: Contracts are a tool to help you achieve your business's goals. What they say, and how they say it, should be guided by those goals. Ask for the things you need to, but don't go off the deep end. Large contracts with lots of onerous clauses can be deal killers all by themselves.