Friday, February 15, 2013

The Key Sections of an Effective Master Services Agreement

In our previous discussion, we looked at the major benefits of master services agreements (MSAs), particularly how they can streamline future business opportunities for your organization. As a quick review: A MSA serves as a general blueprint for how mutual business interests will be addressed and conducted on one project or on multiple or ensuing contracts.

Although a MSA can be a less formal contractual approach for project work, its development still requires careful thought and attention to detail in crafting an effective document. The initial step begins with the scope of work — a statement explaining what the parties are seeking in the agreement and a description of the services to be performed. The scope spells out the “bigger picture” of the business relationship, noting that future scopes of work will be issued pursuant to the master agreement.

A key element of a MSA is the provision for timely payment of services, with a 30-day time frame considered the general standard for most industries. Payment should also be conditional upon approval of the work performed satisfactorily. However, be cautious. Prevent line-item invoicing disputes from placing your entire payment at risk, or at the very least, from delaying payment beyond 30 days. I always include language noting that if any part of the invoice is disputed, the undisputed costs shall still be paid according to the agreement terms as a show of good faith among the parties in resolving their dispute.

A termination clause is another necessary provision of a MSA. I generally advise setting contract terms for specific time frames, say for one year, which automatically renew unless officially terminated. As accepted practice, either party should be able to terminate with reasonable notice at any time. Although such notice usually depends on the nature of the business itself, 60 days is considered preferable, especially if you have numerous subcontractors involved with a project. However, some organizations do lean toward shorter notification periods.

Confidentiality is an important part of any contractual relationship or when following a termination, unexpected or planned. A provision regarding confidentiality and nondisclosure of proprietary information should always be standard. The language should be explicit — and mutual, not unilateral confidentiality — whenever possible. It is preferable that both parties, not one, should agree not to disclose any valued information to third parties.

If the creation of intellectual property is part of the MSA scope of work, the rights to that creation must be defined among the parties. In Washington, the inventor of any property as a service provider automatically retains all intellectual property rights, if not stated otherwise in the agreement. However, most contracting parties prefer the insertion of a “work-for-hire” provision in the MSA, which states that any inventions, patents, copyrights, or trademarks created during the course of the contract are considered intellectual property, whose rights will be retained by the contracting party, not the service provider.

Indemnification provisions are another standard feature of MSAs. The indemnification process basically means that one party will step in and defend the other if a mistake, error or omission occurs. Like confidentiality agreements, indemnification provisions can be mutual or unilateral, although usually they are unilateral because one party — often the contracting party — will have greater bargaining power to position unilateral indemnification in its favor. Regardless, should you find yourself in the situation where contractually you have a unilateral indemnification provision that’s not in your favor, make sure that you have proper liability and risk insurance as a safeguard.

It is also typical for a MSA to have a non-assignment provision, meaning that the scope of work contractually tendered cannot be assigned to someone else without the approval of the other party. Obviously, you don’t want to enter into an agreement only to find that your contractual interest is later assigned to another party with whom you’ve not encountered or dealt with before.

Other sections common to MSAs include no waiver, notification, entire agreement, and severability provisions. A no-waiver clause basically points out that just because one or more aspects of the contract have been ignored, intentionally or otherwise, the entire agreement cannot be invalidated. A notification provision simply identifies the communication format for notifying contractual parties.

An entire agreement provision, also known as an “integration clause,” prevents later oral contradictions from either party to the basic terms of the entire contract, usually aimed at altering or adding language that was not in the original MSA. Severability, which is similar to the no-waiver clause, states that if any provision is found to be contrary to law or unenforceable, it doesn’t invalidate the entire contract.

Finally, I’m an advocate for spirit of cooperation provisions. Although a contract is a formal agreement, it shouldn’t be viewed as adversarial or negative in a litigious sense. It should relate how the parties are going to move forward in a partnering effort to develop a positive business relationship. To that end, I always build in mediation and arbitration clauses as vehicles for negotiating resolutions in good faith when problems arise.