Should You Have Written Agreements
Everyone urges you to have written agreements for your design projects. There really isn't a good reason for not having a contract. However, we were rarely able to accomplish the goal of 100% of projects having a written agreement.
Our best effort to achieve this goal was to simplify the process. The two tools that we found helpful were a Letter Of Engagement, and our own Standard Agreement. There isn't anything wrong with standard AIA agreements. They aren't even hard or time-consuming to complete. But formality and exactitude get in the way.
The problem we found with industry-standard agreements is that too many of our projects started out with a vague scope of work or with us doing programming work for the client. This kind of fuzzy kickoff inevitably slides into actually designing the project without a point at which the preliminary work stops and Basic Services starts. We found that only the need or desire to change the form of billing would act act as a signal that the scope of work has firmed up to the point that a contract could/should be written. So we went a different route.
In the early stages of our typical engagement we found that we could only complete an AIA agreement by filling in "TBD" for the project description and for the fee. We found that we would have to spend twice the effort to get a real written contract.
Instead we developed a Letter of Engagement. The Letter of Engagement easily solves this vagueness by recognizing it and simply stating what we know. To get things underway we proposed that we would be paid by the hour until the project comes into focus. Our standard Letter of Engagement does this and is simple to send off to the client for a signature. We reference our standard terms and conditions and also reference an AIA agreement as the basis for issues that aren't being addressed.
The second tool that we used was a very similar document, our Standard Agreement For Professional Services. This is just a bit more than a proposal form. In fact we often use it as a proposal form, but it is very easy to edit by adding specifics of the project and the fee and subtracting any special conditions that are not applicable.
Either of these agreements could be called up from our server, edited, converted to PDF, electronically signed, and emailed to the client in less time than you we could decide which AIA contract to use. Not to mention completing it with their software or online. Nevertheless, AIA agreements would be my first choice if it weren't for the way reality intrudes and undermines the goal of having a written agreement.
By using these two tools, we had about an 80% completion rate for contracts. That was far from perfect, but our professional liability guy stopped bugging us. Maybe we were close to the industry average.
The newest AIA agreements seem to recognize and embrace the fuzziness of the initial engagement. However there is still the need to revisit the contract periodically and to update it with new information. That just never seems to happen.