Unilateral vs. Bilateral Contract: What’s the Difference?

March 26, 2024 • Contract Management • 5 minutes

Table of contents

  1. What’s the difference between unilateral vs. bilateral contracts?
  2. How to enforce a unilateral vs. bilateral contract
  3. Practical tips for contract negotiations
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Do you know the differences between unilateral contracts vs. bilateral contracts? In this article, we’ll explain how they differ from one another, how to recognize them, and how to effectively use them both.

Along the way, we’ll examine the unique features of these two types of contracts, and explore practical tips for drafting and enforcing them. Let’s dive straight in with a clear definition.

What’s the difference between unilateral vs. bilateral contracts?

The difference between a unilateral and bilateral contract lies mainly in the number of parties who make a promise.

  • In a unilateral contract, one party makes a promise in exchange for a specific action from another party. Here, only one party is legally bound.
  • In contrast, a bilateral contract involves mutual promises between two parties. Both parties are legally obligated to fulfill their promises.

Real-world examples of unilateral and bilateral contracts

A classic example of a unilateral contract is a reward offer. Suppose you offer a reward for finding your lost puppy. You are the only one making a promise – to pay the reward to whoever finds your dog. The person who finds your puppy is not legally bound to search, but chooses to act in hopes of earning the reward.

An employment agreement, on the other hand, is a common type of bilateral contract. You agree to work for an employer, and the employer agrees to pay you. Both you and the employer have obligations that you must fulfill.

How to recognize a unilateral contract

  • Look for a one-sided promise: In a unilateral contract, only one party commits to an obligation, usually in exchange for an action rather than a promise.
  • Action-based: Unilateral contracts typically involve a specific action to be completed, like finding a lost item or completing a task.
  • No obligation for the second party: The other party is not legally bound to perform the action but does so voluntarily, often incentivized by the promise.

How to recognize a bilateral contract

  • Look for mutual: In a bilateral contract, you and another party will commit to obligations. For instance, in a sales agreement, one party promises to deliver goods, and the other promises to pay.
  • Agreement-based: Bilateral contracts are based on agreements between parties. Each party agrees to perform certain duties or services, not just complete a specific action.
  • Obligations for both parties: In a bilateral contract, both parties are legally bound by their promises. Once you make an agreement, each party has specific contractual obligations to fulfill.

How to enforce a unilateral vs. bilateral contract

Enforcing unilateral and bilateral contracts presents unique challenges, and requires specific strategies tailored to each type.

Enforcing a unilateral contract

Unilateral contracts entail distinct hurdles due to their one-sided nature. Enforcing unilateral contracts proves challenging as they hinge on one party’s promise without reciprocal obligations. Verifying completion of specific actions, upon which unilateral contracts are contingent, can also be complex, leading to disputes over fulfillment.

Enforcing a bilateral contract

Addressing disputes arising from bilateral contracts requires careful navigation. Encourage parties to resolve disputes amicably through mediation or negotiation, focusing on mutually beneficial solutions. If negotiation fails, consider formal dispute resolution methods like arbitration or litigation to ensure legal compliance and fair outcomes.

Seeking legal advice: when and why

Knowing when to seek legal guidance can prevent and mitigate contractual disputes. You’ll want to consult legal experts when faced with intricate bilateral contract disputes involving multiple obligations or significant financial stakes. It’s also smart to seek legal advice during contract drafting, to make sure your contracts are clear, enforceable, and in alignment with legal standards.

Practical tips for contract negotiations

Next time you negotiate a unilateral or bilateral contract, follow these tips to keep the process flowing smoothly.

  • Communicate transparently: Maintain open and clear communication with all parties involved to make sure everyone understands the terms and expectations.
  • Word contract terms clearly: Draft contracts with clear and precise language to minimize ambiguity and potential misunderstandings.
  • Stay flexible in negotiations: Remain open to negotiations and be willing to compromise on non-critical terms to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.
  • Stick to the timetable: Adhere to agreed-upon timelines and deadlines to maintain trust and integrity throughout the negotiation process.
  • Get help from a legal expert: Seek legal advice to ensure contracts comply with relevant laws and regulations, reducing the risk of disputes or legal challenges.
  • Document, document, document: Keep detailed records of all contract negotiations and agreements to provide clarity and accountability — for example, in your contract management software.

By incorporating these practical tips into your contract negotiations, you can increase the likelihood of reaching favorable outcomes while minimizing potential risks and conflicts.

Remember, successful unilateral and bilateral contracts are built on clarity, trust, and mutual understanding. Armed with these principles, you’re well-equipped to forge robust agreements and cultivate lasting professional partnerships.

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