Things to look for in an interpreting contract.

December 8, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

There has been a lot of discussion about interpreting services contracts in the past weeks.  The SOSi immigration court interpreter contract was a trending topic all over the social media.  Many colleagues debated, attacked, and defended parts of the contract like I never saw before.  This circumstance, together with other events in the professional world that involve contract negotiation (and the contents of the agreement itself) such as all federal contracts that were up for renewal at the beginning of the new U.S. federal government’s fiscal year, several irregularities with some state government contracts that appeared prior to their new fiscal year in August, and just the wording of quite a few contracts drafted by interpreting services agencies, large and small, made me think long and hard about the importance of negotiating an agreement and reviewing the letter of the proposed contract before committing myself to anything by the power of my signature.

Signing a contract is a very important act that can impact our professional career and reputation for a long time. It is not, as some colleagues may think now and then, a simple ceremonial thing that needs to be done in order to get the big assignment or the prestigious event. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law. (Black’s Law Dictionary). As Samuel Williston puts it, “A contract is a promise, or a set of promises, for breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty…” (A treatise on the Law of Contracts §1, at 1-2. Walter H.E. Jaeger ed., 3d ed. 1957)

I suggest that we should all reflect on the meaning and magnitude of the concept above, and apply ourselves to the negotiating of the terms and conditions that will govern our professional services with a client, and that we review in detail the final document that the client (whether it is a direct client or an agency) tenders for our signature before we undertake any obligations.  In fact, I recommend that before signing any agreement, you give your attorney a chance to review the terms of the contract to see if there are any “unwanted” harmful terms. Even if you do not have an attorney who regularly works with you, I encourage you to get one. It is that important, and in most countries it is tax-deductible as part of the cost of doing business.  Just think for a moment: the other party had a lawyer draft the contract, that attorney is being paid by the party who has an interest in the delivery of the professional service that is different from yours, and many times it is the opposite.  Although ethical and professional, the job of the counterpart’s attorney is to protect his client’s interests, not yours.  Just like you would never enter a car race on foot while the others are driving a car, you should never sign a contract unless, and until, you are familiar with all of its contents because all of your questions have been answered to your satisfaction, and all your concerns have been put to rest.  Remember: You are an interpreter and you provide a professional service.

There are different types of contract that you will encounter during your professional life; government agencies will always have their standard contract, some large agencies, corporations and organizations will have their own contracts as well.  Smaller agencies and direct clients will likely accept your version of a contract or will adapt their own document to your demands and suggestions. Finally, some of your regular clients may not use written contracts. They will negotiate assignments with you more informally. That is fine, but remember, the document is not the contract; the contract is the meeting of the minds, the agreement of the parties. In other words, even in these cases you have a contract.

I always review all contract conditions, even when dealing with the government, and when I dislike a certain term, or I consider necessary to add some conditions, I propose the changes. You will be surprised to learn that more often than not, the counterpart agrees to the amendments to their standard contract. By the same token, I am also flexible and open minded about the counterpart’s proposals and suggestions. I always consider them and give them a lot of thought. On many occasions I agree to the changes, provided they do not leave me unprotected and the potential risk is something I can live with.  Finally, in the case of a regular client who never signs any documents with me, I always put all essential terms of the verbal contract in writing and send them to the client by email as a memorandum of understanding, stating very clearly that by receiving the email and not taking any action within the first 24 hours, the client is consenting to the terms and conditions included on the email. This way essentials such as type of event, dates and location, scope of services and fee are always included, as well as reimbursement of expenses, travel costs and fees, late payment penalties, cancellation policy, and standard working conditions according to the type of assignment (equipment, booths, team interpreting, materials and glossaries, etc.)

As we see above, contracts can come on different presentations and they originate for different reasons depending on the client who drafted the contract; but, regardless of the type of contract, there are always certain things we should look for in an interpreter contract. I will share with all of you some of those items I look for in all contracts, and I hope this helps you as much as it helps me; however, I would like to make it very clear that my suggestion is that you always go to an attorney before signing any contract. The following are just suggestions that have worked for me, but in no way they are intended to constitute legal advice of any kind. All situations are different and I do not know your particular situation, so please understand that this is not legal advice. Only your lawyer can give you that kind of professional help.

These are the things I look for in a professional contract:

First. The scope of the service. I always look for the specifics: What the client is actually retaining me for. It is very important because some clients have the idea that once you are hired, you are theirs during the assignment to do anything that they consider part of the service. They are wrong. You agreed to perform a certain service and you are only getting paid for that service. Nothing else. Be careful about services description that may “include” translation services, being responsible for giving out and collecting interpreting equipment, other peripheral interpreting services not previously discussed such as dinners, press conferences, book signings, etc.

Second. I always pay attention to the wording because it tells me a lot about the client. I look for “telling” words such as interpretation industry (instead of profession) and in the case of an agency, how they refer to their end client: If they refer to them in the contract as “the customer” instead of “the client”, we will have a very difficult relationship because it is clear that my profession is an industrial commercial activity to them. I always discuss these issues when present in the contract, educate the client about the profession, and usually they agree to change the contract’s terminology (at least for my assignments if not for the rest of my colleagues)

Third. The grounds for termination of the contract. This is a crucial item because an early termination could impact your income for at least a few days or weeks. The reasons to terminate a contract early have to be fair, and they should include both parties. I have found many contracts where only the client can do an early termination. That is wrong, unfair, and highly suspicious. The grounds should apply to both parties, and in long-term contracts, they should include the lack of payment or late payment of your fee as a cause for early termination.

Fourth.  The famous confidentiality clause that although redundant since we are professionals and as such are legally and ethically bound to this duty of confidentiality, it should be included for the peace of mind of the client and his attorneys; however, the same provision should always include that the confidentiality will be observed with the exceptions of law. Yes, the law allows you to break this duty of confidentiality, even in the client-attorney privilege case, when there are certain facts that justify the lifting of this duty. For example, if you have to file a lawsuit against your client for lack of payment, or when your client sues you and you need to defend yourself. In those cases (and others) the law allows you to break the duty, limited to what may be necessary, to defend yourself or to exercise legal action.

Fifth. I look for cases where the client contractually limits his liability, and when I find it I do not like it and demand that it be changed. Although many legislations permit that an individual’s liability be reduced or limited by agreement of the parties, it is ridiculous for the other party to suggest, and for you to agree, to be exposed to all kinds of damages in case of a lawsuit, while the agency and the end client just sit and observe how you lose your business (in one of the best possible outcomes) or all of your assets and life-long savings (as a very good possibility). This is a no-no. Everybody should have the same exposure and respond for the damages caused according to their contribution to the loss. This is a very good reason why the parties should always request a copy of the other parties’ liability insurance certificate.

Sixth. There are some provisions that raise many red flags as they denote a clear intent to tilt the balance in favor of one of the parties (and that party is not usually you). Any provision that makes it illegal for the interpreter to talk to the media about the terms and conditions of the contract, unless we are dealing with information protected by the duty of confidentiality or the client-attorney privilege, and all clauses that force you to “consent” to resolve any controversies through arbitration instead of going to court are a huge warning sign.  You see, businesses prefer arbitration because it is less expensive, but mainly, because they get to “pick” the arbitrator. Unless you know several arbitrators that you trust, which is unlikely, they will always get to suggest the arbitrator. This individual will know them, it is very likely that he has presided over other arbitrations with the same party, and he will probably, be inclined to keep the client (your counterpart) happy for business reasons into the future.  Of course this last part cannot be demonstrated and I have no basis to claim that this is what happens during arbitration. The question is: Are you willing to take the chance? I personally would not do it. I would seek justice in the court system. Yes, it will take longer, but impartiality is more common in the courtroom, and if you win, the losing party may have to pay your attorney’s fees.

Seventh.  All terms and conditions must be in writing and they must be part of the written document. Even those terms and conditions contained in an appendix to the main contract should be referenced to and identified within the body of the contract by a number or a letter. Make sure that all attachments are signed by all parties, and dated with the same date as the main contract.  Most legislations abide by the parol evidence rule which clearly states that all agreements previous or contemporary to the signing of the contract must be in writing and appear as part of the physical agreement. Those that do not follow this rule will not be considered as part of the contract.  Be very careful with all those promises and concessions on the side.  They are not part of the contract unless they are in writing and in the document itself.

Eight.  Travel expenses must be included in the contract. The document should clearly state what expenses are reimbursable: airfare, hotel, ground transportation, Per Diem, photocopies, etc. It should also spell the fees payable to the interpreter on traveling days.  Remember, you provide a personal professional service. You cannot provide your services to two clients at the same time, so on the days that you travel to and from the assignment location, you are not working for any client. Unless you like to lose money, you should clearly negotiate and include in the contract your travel fee. There is a cost of doing business, but you should never lose money for accepting an assignment. Maybe one half of your regular fee should be a fair compensation for your travel days. Make sure that reimbursement of expenses for travel days are for total expenses. You can charge a lower fee, but you cannot fly, sleep or eat for less money just because it is a travel day.

Ninth.   The cancellation policy will always be in the contract. I would never sign an agreement that does not deal with this issue.  This policy needs to be negotiated taking into account the time between the cancellation and the cancelled event.  The fact that your client just found out of a cancellation that was decided two weeks ago is no excuse to lower your cancellation fee. It is your client’s obligation and duty of due diligence to be on top of everything the end client is considering, pondering, thinking, and doing.  A last-minute cancellation should require a full fee and reimbursement of all monies disbursed to that point.  Remember, it is not your fault that the client lost the event. That is his risk, not yours.

Tenth.  A good contract should cover payments in detail: amounts, timetables, and penalties in case of late payment.  Just as you had to show up to interpret on the set date, and not 30 days later, the client has the obligation to pay you on the day agreed to, and if he does not, then you must be compensated by virtue of a penalty clause that provides for compensation in case of any delays.  This is extremely important with smaller agencies who sometimes come to the interpreter crying poverty and asking for more time to pay you because their client has not paid them yet.  Although some of you may be tempted to give the small business owner a break, I am not. Do not lose sight of reality: This individual is your client. He is not your partner. Only partners share the risks of doing business. He is not sharing his pay with you. You should not share in the risk. He pays you or else… Where he gets the money from is not your problem.  You should also look for unacceptable provisions, usually inserted by larger agencies, about penalizing you by retaining part of your (already earned) fee.  They often include deductions based on what they consider your “performance” and deduct part of the money you already made. This is unacceptable and illegal.  Nobody should agree to give up part of his fee based on the assessment of others, much less when there are no safeguards in the contract such as notice of the intent to deduct part of the fee, and a mechanism to have a hearing before an impartial authority. How about letting a real judge deal with this issue? Agencies should never get that power from the contract- signing interpreter.

There are many more points to be included and reviewed by the parties, but I believe that at least these basic elements put me on a leveled field with the client as equal parties to a contract. I now ask you to please share any pointers or comments you may have on this very important professional issue.

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