Working for yourself is the modern dream; being your own boss lets you manage your own time, cherry-pick projects and choose your clients. It also lets you enjoy a healthy work/life balance that many agency and in-house creatives don’t get, and means you don’t have to compromise on the quality of your work.
However, there are responsibilities that come with contracting. Being aware of your legal duties towards your client, understanding the implications of your advice and designs, and ensuring you’re paying the right taxes are all parts of being self-employed. So is making sure you have a good, fool-proof contract in place with every client.
Why is having a client contract so important?
Many freelancers – especially those that have recently made the jump, or are perhaps dabbling on the side – often overlook the importance of having some kind of contract with their clients.
When scoping out a project with a new client, it’s great that you get fired up about the work and want to jump in head-first. Enthusiasm is key to not just winning but keeping clients. However, don’t be hasty; while you may feel that you can trust an unwritten agreement, unfortunately you could get stung further down the line.
Contracts are used throughout our lives for various exchanges, from renting a house to enrolling on a course. Business is always a two-way affair, and a contract ensures that your needs as a contractor (i.e. getting paid) and their needs as a client (i.e. receiving a finished, fit-for-purpose product) are honoured.
While paperwork is definitely not what you signed up for when you became your own boss, a tailored contract for each client (at a minimum, many contracting veterans advise drafting a contract for each project) is a necessity. If you’re still not persuaded that it’s worth the time away from your work, read on for some reasons why contracts are so important when you’re self-employed.
Contracts protect you
Some contractors get very lucky with their clients and never have a problem. You might’ve found the same thus far in your freelancing journey; you’ve built a set of regulars that you’re on the same page as, and you feel you understand each other.
At some point in the course of your career, however, you’re likely to run into a misunderstanding. It could be that you and your client weren’t on the same page when you scoped out that latest project together and they want you to redo the work for free, or your invoice is being ignored and your mortgage payment is due.
Working for yourself can put you in some vulnerable positions, both financially and emotionally. It’s invaluable to have a contract in place that protects you from things like late payments, being paid less than what was agreed, or being expected to make extensive amends without charging for the time.
If the client has agreed on only two rounds of adjustments without further cost or to pay you within 30 days of receiving an invoice, then that has to be honoured by law. Knowing they’ve signed against it gives you the power to speak up.
Contracts protect your clients
I’ll reiterate again that business is always a two-way affair. Having clauses in your contract that protect the client show that you’re credible and trustworthy. It could also make them more willing to sign against the rest of your contractual specifications with little negotiation.
Horror stories where a client has hired a contractor and been left without a deliverable, be it a product, services or advice, are sadly common. Not only can this result in the client losing money, but it could also mean that they have difficulty hiring someone to finish a bad job.
Including a client protection clause may be the deciding factor that lands you the project, especially with a client who’s had a bad experience with a freelancer before. It helps to convey your professionalism and reassures your client that you take their work seriously.
It also goes a long way to counteracting any negativity about contractors for a let-down client, which is good for everyone’s business.
Contracts boost your accountability
A contract is the best way to reinforce accountability on a project, to both the client and yourself. We’ve all had to sign a contract or legal document at some point and we know the implications if you don’t uphold your end of the agreement.
This kind of motivation is sometimes exactly what’s needed to meet a tough deadline, deliver your best work or get really innovative with a stale idea. If you know that you’ve signed up to a set of expectations, it can have a spurring effect on your approach to the project.
Of course, this works the same way for your clients. If they know that they’ve signed an agreement to pay you within a certain timeframe, they’re much more likely to do it. If you’ve specified that you can’t start work without access to a website backend or a set of assets, they’re obliged to deliver those things first.
However, it’s important to make sure that your contract is clear. While a little ‘legal speak’ will always be necessary, make sure to use as much plain old English as possible. It’ll help both your client and you understand what you’re agreeing too and start to foster that trust that’s so crucial to new client-contractor relationships. It’ll also make it clear that you have nothing to hide.
Final client contract advice
It’s always best to get any contract that you’re considering using checked over by a legal professional, no matter how official the site you pulled the template from looked.
It’s also important to remember that if a client gets edgy about signing a contract, they’re not worth working with. That ‘no’ makes room for a better ‘yes’; don’t make exceptions or create leeway in your contract for certain clients, no matter how great their industry connections are or how much you want the project. It’s almost always a sign of deeper problems to come – show some respect for your business and take it elsewhere.
Finally, saying no to a client is never easy but you can use a good contract as a point of reference. If they haven’t paid you in a certain amount of time, refer them back to your contract. If they’re asking for more work than you agreed to for the price, refer them back to your contract. Use it as a tool to help you get the very best out of your time as a freelancer.
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