Freelance Contracts: Do’s And Don’ts

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In the world of freelancing, the entrepreneur has to take on a number of tasks for themselves that would normally be handled by a separate department at a bigger company. Most of these tasks are not part of the creative processes that freelance workers are used to, but rather are more tedious, left-brain paperwork. Right-brain creatives often shudder at the thought of these forays into linear domains. Such detail-ridden tasks would strain any freelancer who wears multiple hats, but they must be completed.

One such task is contracts. Drafting a contract that covers you, and doesn’t just enumerate information, is more than important: it is a must. Freelancers do not have the benefit of a legal department dedicated to protecting their interests with a watertight contract. Nevertheless, a freelancer’s contract must be comprehensive, concise and clear. It should outline the scope of the job, scheduling demands, the expectations of both parties and more.

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In this post, we’ll help you identify the information that should be included in your contract and make sure you have a concrete agreement that leaves little chance of things getting out of hand… as can sometimes happen to those of us in the freelancing crowd.

These do’s and don’ts will hopefully remove a lot of the headache and guesswork that comes with drafting a contract. By understanding the rationale behind various contractual elements, you will be able to better customize your contracts to fit the specific job you have been hired for.

The Basics

Include the basic information, obviously. The “who” and the “what” of the project. Who is contracting you to do what kind of work? This is standard stuff included in every contract that defines the job as a whole. While this information is probably well known by both parties, put it in the contract anyway so that everyone is on the same page about their roles and responsibilities. Because it is such basic information, freelancers often overlook how important this section is for establishing the framework of the project.

Do’s and Don’ts

K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple, Simon (your name may not be Simon, but it is nicer than the traditional “S” in the phrase.) Do be sure to clarify your role in the project from start to finish and exactly what it entails, so that the client doesn’t try to put a hat on your head that you do not want to wear (for example, trying to make you switch from designing to providing tech support once the project has launched).

You know who you are and what your strengths are; don’t leave room for the client to change your role in the project for their convenience. Be specific about what roles you are and are not willing to play.

Time Frame

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This simply establishes the time that the project will take and the duration that the contract covers. Sometimes a freelancer has to leave time open after a project’s completion to help integrate the product into the client’s existing media stream. But not always. Determining that time frame at the beginning and formalizing it in the terms and conditions of the contract will ensure you are not taken advantage of.

Do’s and Don’ts

Many people do not like deadlines, and some freelancers are no different. Whether you love or hate them, including deadlines in your contracts is important. Don’t overlook this detail simply because of the pressure it may bring. Give yourself enough time to properly complete your tasks, while keeping the client’s timetable in mind.

Being vague about how much time the contract covers will give your client room to find things for you to improve after the project has launched. Also, do be sure to include time frames on when the client needs to respond to your submissions with their questions and concerns, so that you are not endlessly strung along waiting to hear back on how to proceed.

Delivery Details

Putting this in the contract further clarifies expectations at the outset. The client knows up front what the final product will be and how you will be delivering it to them. This frees you from having to guess later on things like what file types they can access, and it gives the client peace of mind knowing that you are both on the same page.

It also gives you an indication of the depth of the client’s knowledge in this area of work and how well they will be able to work with the product once you hand it over. And being able to anticipate the client’s need for assistance in accessing and integrating your product will help you formulate other parts of the contract.

Do’s and Don’ts

Once again, keep it simple. Once you’ve assessed the client’s needs, don’t send them more files or file types than are needed to satisfy the project’s requirements. Don’t try to impress them with a ZIP file full of extras that show how professional you are. This will overwhelm clients who are not design-savvy and encourages needless pestering. Keeping it simple will move your client happily along their way, not only giving you peace of mind from a job well done but freeing you from future distractions as you move on to your next client.

The Financials

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For most design work, billing by the job, rather than by the hour, is easier for everyone. You may have already come to an agreement on financial matters, but include them in the contract anyway for good measure. Just because you have an understanding about payment, the client could always conveniently “forget” the amount or change the terms.

Do’s and Don’ts

Agree on an initial deposit (whatever seems fair) before doing any work, to protect both parties if either wants to back out. Make sure the client understands that this deposit protects them as well by committing you to the project and keeping you from being sidetracked by other clients. Also include a Cancellation Clause in the financial section of the contract. This isn’t Santa’s less famous brother; it actually protects you, the freelancer, in case your client backs out by stating the financial obligations of both parties should the project terminate before completion.

Revisions And Alterations

You can also protect yourself by including a clause that states how many alterations and revisions to the product are covered by the fee. You can set the pricing for changes requested by the client that go beyond the number specified in the contract, thus preventing the client from abusing their privilege.

Be clear that this is not a commentary on either party; by including this, you are not implying that the client will be hard to please or that you will need multiple attempts to get it right. It simply recognizes that we sometimes need time to fully process something before making a decision and that we should have the freedom to change our minds about whether an idea works or not once we actually see it in action.

Do’s and Don’ts

Remember that professionalism should win out at all times, so don’t let this part of the contract be any different. Yes, it can be aggravating how some clients come back to you over and over with requests as a result of every whim that moves them, but do be reasonable. Don’t punish all of your clients because of one that burned you in the past. And don’t let pride keep you from accommodating a modest amount of revision by the client, even if they don’t suit your taste. After all, the design may be yours, but they are paying you to create it for them.

The Fine Print And Bottom Line

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In the end, make sure the contract is professional and clear throughout, and be as detailed as possible in defining the roles of both parties in the project.

Further Resources

Here are some further articles and related resources:

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Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.dynamicgraphics.com/Microsoft/Article/28679/index.html
  2. 2 http://esdev.net/web-design-contracts-the-how-and-whys-of-contracts/
  3. 3 http://idea15.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/what-goes-into-a-good-web-design-contract/
  4. 4 http://www.davidairey.com/using-freelance-graphic-design-contracts/
  5. 5 http://www.businessofdesignonline.com/downloads-forms/
  6. 6 http://www.acuitydesigns.net/freelance-contracts/
  7. 7 http://www.horse-logos.com/page.html?chapter=0&id=4
  8. 8 http://www.creativebusiness.com/action.lasso?-response=details.lasso&-token.Ctype=form&-token.fid=89&-nothing
  9. 9 http://www.sessions.edu/career_center/design_tools/freelance_templates/index.asp
  10. 10 http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/standard-agreement

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Rob Bowen is a staff writer for Web Hosting Geeks and Top Web Hosting, a longtime freelance designer, and burgeoning videographer and filmmaker whose creative voice and works can be heard and found around the web.

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  1. 1

    Jonathan Patterson

    October 20, 2009 7:08 pm

    A Cancellation Clause is essential. If a client stops a job or just plain never gets back in touch then you need to have a plan in place that covers your time up to that point. My contract says that all costs to date, if after 30 days of inactivity, are billed immediately.

    Great read.

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  2. 52

    Jonathan Patterson

    October 20, 2009 7:09 pm

    @CIPPO Design- Keep It Simple Stupid is another popular variation.

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  3. 103

    Great article! I need to create a contract for myself, so I’m bookmarking this to consult when I start working on it. Thanks for the great tips.

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  4. 154

    Thank you so much for this. I really needed a contract now. This came in handy. God bless!

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  5. 205

    Wow, this is an awesome post! Thank you so much for sharing this information and all these resources! As a freelancer just in the beginning stages of my freelancing career, this is definitely an area I need to know more about!

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  6. 256

    Benjamin "balupton" Lupton

    November 3, 2009 9:59 am

    Hey great article! I’m definitely going to use some of the recommendations discussed here. It’s really interesting as I’ve just come out of a project that has burned me really really badly. Previously I have worked by by-the-hour billing and never had any problems with it. I would issue a quote providing a min and max of my estimates, they say yeah, and I get on to it. I would then bill on however long it took regardless of the min and max. So the client may get lucky and it takes less time than the min, or something may come up and it goes over the max in which case I’ll let the client know along the way that it may go over etc, and really get them to understand how come. This proved to be tremendously successful for myself and clients.

    However a few months ago I accepted a fixed fee job based on a SRS document. The client originally said that my role would be a small portion of the implementation of the SRS document (just the javascript), but soon enough I had to wear the hats of all the other areas as well: tech support, backend, implementer. This extension of my role was all due to minimal brief requirements at the start and then as the project continued the client would unravel extra hidden child requirements. About half way through I contacted them letting them know this is not what we agreed, and that I am loosing a lot of money on this. They agreed to pay me a little bit more, which covered the costs then, but additional month later more alterations are still coming through. However it launches tomorrow, so will be all finished up. They want to use me for another project, however I will have to decline.

    Coming out of this, I have learnt that at least for me using the by-the-hour system I mentioned earlier is pure bliss for myself and clients, whereas the fixed fee style makes me want to go on rampage.

    Hope my story can relate to others, and if so feel free to let me know of your stories and articles about how to prevent these situations. Thanks!

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  7. 307

    Good read! A few weeks ago, I spent part of the day redoing one of my contracts and it was well worth it. Spelled out many of the things you mentioned here. It was tedious – but it was a good time investment so now there are few gray areas!

    Clarifying your roles and responsibilities as well as letting the client know that they too have deadlines is all to often over-looked. IMHO, contracts help both you and the client stay on track.

    I have come to realize that if a potential client has as issue with a contract – then they are more than likely going to be an “issue” themselves.

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  9. 409

    Dvize Melbourne

    March 24, 2010 2:25 am

    We have released our Sample Website Agreement for free download. We have included the source files.

    http://www.dvize.com/sample-website-agreement/

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  10. 460

    How to find a client whether the project belongs to him or not. Then the project gets completed he / she says the project has so many mistakes we cannot pay. How to tackle this

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  11. 511

    How does everyone send the contracts to their clients? What if they live in a different area to you? Do you get them to print it off, sign it, scan it and then send it back to you?

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  12. 562

    I really want to thank you for this useful article. It helps me a lot for my freelance webdesign business. Thanks.

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  13. 613

    I never had anything in writing, can I do anything to make my boss pay what he owes. I do have emails from company, witnesses that know I have did the work and the designer before me was done the same way. Oh, and he also 1099s all his non family employees so he dosen’t have to pay extra.

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  14. 664

    I can’t stress enough to have a lawyer actually look over your contract. For our contacts we use the basic AIGA one, but had a lawyer go over it and look for “holes”. Also, don’t assume that people will not take it to the lawsuit level – there is always someone out there who, for whatever reason, will try it. It does seem to be rare and negotiations, diplomacy and professionalism are paramount when dealing with the situation of an unhappy or awol-without-paying client.

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  15. 715

    Thanks por this article

    Very useful!!!

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  16. 766

    This is great information. However, what if the company your freelancing for provides the contract? Do I still make up my own contract and have them sign it? OR should I tell them to put these things in their’s if it’s not in there? This is where I am so lost. It’s always been my understanding that I should put together a contract, but the last two freelance jobs I’ve done (these were also my first two jobs), the company had me sign their contract. Please Help

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