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Freelance Contracts: Where Do I Even Start?

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Freelancer reviewing contracts at his desk.

Let’s face it. No one really wants to write up a contract. There are so many different parts and so many ways it might go wrong. What if you forget to include a schedule of payment? What if there’s a legal loophole you just didn’t know about?

Luckily, freelancers write contracts all the time, and they aren’t usually ultra-lengthy documents filled with legalese. Your contract can be a simple outline of your agreement with a few added protections (just in case).

Here are a few basic guidelines that will get you off to a great start when working on your first freelance contract.

1 – Keep it Simple

Your contract doesn’t need to be as long as Apple’s terms and conditions to stand up in a court of law. In fact, unless you went to law school, you should avoid any complex statements that could lead to ambiguity. It’s also important to use consistent wording—don’t interchange “project” and “assignment,” for example. If there are any necessary terms that could be confusing, don’t be afraid to define them just to make sure that there is no chance of misinterpretation.

2 – Outline the Scope and Milestones

This is probably the most important part of your contract. This is where you provide specific language concerning the scope of your deliverables and when they are expected. You can also specify milestones so that you can formally check in with your client throughout the project instead of leaving them wondering if you’re really on schedule.

Milestones are also helpful in case something changes. If you haven’t started a part of the project that the client suddenly decides to cancel, you didn’t do any unnecessary work.

3 – Maintain Flexibility for Both Parties

It’s not rare for a project to change over time, but some clients decide that the certain aspects of a project need to change completely when you are halfway through—and sometimes they expect you to do this extra work for free. The solution to this is to specify up front how these overall project revisions will be handled. If the client wants to alter the specifics of a deliverable that you have already started, make sure to specify that they will pay for work that you’ve already done.

A client might also start asking for services outside the original scope. The contract is the place to specify what to do when the client starts asking for more than you signed up for. This can be upfront and specific, stating a cost of additional work, or you can leave more flexible by asking for renegotiation if the scope reaches beyond the original agreement. This way, you can’t be taken advantage of, but the client also has the opportunity to renegotiate if necessary.

4 – Specify Payment

There are a couple things to keep in mind when it comes to payment: when and how you’ll be paid, and what happens if you aren’t. Provide the client with a firm schedule of when you will send them an invoice and when they should pay you. This could be on a monthly basis or upon the completion of a deliverable. It’s also important to list acceptable methods of payment, like direct deposit or a check.

You can also incorporate a fee if your payment isn’t on time, or if a check bounces (though be sure to check if this is compliant within your state). A trustworthy client will pay you on time, while a bad client might not sign on in the first place, saving you a headache or two.

5 – Define Your Rights

Depending on the industry, clients want different levels of rights to your work. Most of the time, the complete copyright for the work is turned over to the client upon completion and compensation. This means that you, the freelancer, cannot reuse any part of the project in the future.

It’s also important that you keep the client in mind while you draft. For them to sign anything, they have to know that they are getting something out of it. While you want to protect your rights and avoid exploitation, remember that the client wants to be assured that you will turn in quality work.

6 – Protect Yourself

Sometimes, things just don’t work out between you and a client. It’s important to include a termination clause that allows either party to exit the agreement. This could include an amount of notice needed for termination and a “kill fee” that ensures you get some compensation for the abrupt loss of future income.

Many contracts include jurisdiction clauses which limit where you could be sued. You can also include a liabilities clause that will prevent your client from coming back and suing you for any more than the cost of the project. While these are rare situations, it’s better to be too protected than up the creek without a paddle.

Every freelancer-client relationship is different, so it’s important to draft a contract that will fit your needs. Final words of advice? Don’t be afraid to get in touch with a lawyer to make sure your contract is airtight. The last thing you need is your contract getting thrown out in a court of law because of some legal loophole.

Questioning if you really need a freelance contract? Click here to see if a contract could be a helpful addition to your client relationships.