There are several things to understand about contracts.
First, foremost, and biggest: the contract is there for when things go wrong or go really right. It spells out everyone’s duties in these two instances. It’s basically a laundry list of what each party will and won’t do. That’s all.
Now, in the spirit of that, they aren’t fair to you. Unless you wrote the thing, it’s going to be lopsided.
Of course, you have to read the thing. Not just read, but understand. Because words mean things, and the more you understand, the better off you’ll be. Reading and understanding the contract means you won’t come back asking questions later if/when things go wrong.
The next thing requires you to do something: talk. More specifically, ask. If you don’t understand what something says, then you ask. Then ask for the clarification to be put in the contract, just that way.
Contracts don’t need to be written in legalese. Legalese was created in order to be specific, but it has the added benefit of being confusing as hell. Unless you have a penchant for reading this stuff, it will quite often degenerate into a buzz as you try to make your way through it. And the longer the contract, the more likely this will happen. This is why people hire lawyers.
You also have to think. Think of the obvious, as well as think of the worst-case scenarios, and see if those things are covered in the contract. If they aren’t, ask why not. Then get those things put in there. If they are, make sure you understand the ramifications of what happens if those scenarios come to pass.
The final thing to understand about contracts is that the standard contract you’re offered by a company is nothing more than a starting point. You can negotiate changes. If the company doesn’t want to make reasonable changes and can’t or won’t give you a reason why, then you have the option of walking away.
You will always have the option of walking away. Having a contract offered to you is not a gift. It isn’t an honor. If the company wants your work, then they have to be willing to change a bit. A reasonable amount.
Last, but certainly not least, if you ever feel you need the advice of a lawyer, then you need the advice of a lawyer. Ask to take the contract to a lawyer before you sign it. If they say no or try to pressure you into signing it then and there, then something’s wrong and you should run the other way.
And that’s it. That’s your tip for the week.