Do You Need A Contract For Freelance Work?

Should You Have A Contract As A Freelancer?Do you have a contract for each freelance job that you accept?

Conventional business wisdom suggests that no business arrangement should be entered into unless a signed contract is in place. You wouldn’t sell your car or hire someone to remodel your house without a contract in place, would you?

At least that’s how conventional reasoning goes. Indeed, a year and a half ago, I would have answered the previous question with a resounding “Yes. Yes, I do have a contract for every single freelance project that I accept.”

That was before I entered the “Wild, Wild West” of the web content freelance writing market. Prior to writing web content, even my very smallest freelance writing projects were worth hundreds of dollars and represented a significant portion of a week’s worth of work on my part.

In those circumstances, you’d better believe that I had a contract for every single project that I worked on. In most cases, the client insisted on it.

With the addition of web content writing to my freelance business, the nature of my freelance work changed. Yes, I still have the larger freelance writing jobs that require hours and hours of work. In fact, they are still my bread and butter. But, in addition to those jobs, I am often asked to do much smaller projects: a blog post here, a few articles there…

Here are five reasons why you should consider having a contract for every freelance job that you might accept, and five reasons why you may not wish to have a contract for some jobs.

Five Reasons Why Freelancers Should Have A Contract For Every Job

  1. A contract can help to assure that both you and the client agree on the terms of the project and the nature of the work.
  2. A contract clearly spells out payment terms, due date, number of revisions, and the answers to numerous other questions that might arise during the course of the project.
  3. A contract may provide legal protection for both the client and the freelancer.
  4. A contract clearly conveys that you are a professional running a business and that you are serious about your work.
  5. A contract protects the freelancer from changes in the scope of work and the client from work that doesn’t meet the contractual requirements.

Five Reasons Why Freelancers Don’t Need A Contract For Every Job

  1. Some jobs are too small for a contract to be practical. Writing a specific contract for the job could take longer than takes to do the work and cost more than the project is worth.
  2. Business is based on trust. A client who violates the terms of an informal agreement will probably also violate the terms of a contract.
  3. Requiring a contract for every freelance project may cause you to lose some clients who don’t want to go to the trouble of signing a formal agreement.
  4. Waiting for a contract to be finalized can delay the start of a project.
  5. Some freelancers don’t have the expertise or knowledge to create their own contract and don’t want to pay the price for a contract drawn up by an attorney.

Personally, I find it necessary to have something written about the terms and requirements of each assignment that I accept. With a written document (even if it is an e-mail), the client and I both have something that we can refer back to if there is a question about my work or payment.

However, these days that “something written” is sometimes in the form of an e-mail rather than in the form of a contract. In fact, I’m working on this very blog post on the basis of an e-mail, not a contract.

I think the bottom line is that the decision of whether or not to use a contract for a specific project is about liability and risk. When deciding whether or not you should accept work without a contract ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much liability is likely to arise from this project?
  • How much liability am I willing to assume?
  • How much pay am I willing to risk losing if the client and I don’t agree that my work is satisfactory?

For me, the answer to all of those questions is “not much.” I only do work based solely on e-mails for fairly small projects. What is the answer for you?

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve had exactly three contracts in as many years and those were ones that the clients requested. They were also pretty unnecessary, as we deliver what we promise (and on time) but hey.

    Here’s my take on it, keeping in mind that to me contract means formatted legal document including handwritten signatures.

    I’m Canadian. If I work with Joe down in Texas, and Joe walks off into the sunset, there ain’t no damned contract that’s going to protect me. I’m screwed. I keep copyright, Joe keeps his money and life goes on.

    What are my options? To hire a cross-border lawyer skilled in international law to go after 1k? Um, the costs of that would be phenomenal. Not worth it, in my eyes.

    In short, I protect myself in other ways beyond a contract. Deposits, milestones, halting work, etc etc.

    However, if you consider an email to be a contract, then I have a trail for every single job I’ve ever done in my life that clearly spells out all the details so there can never be confusion. Those I rely on steadily.

    But like I said – if Joe walks, I’m screwed no matter which way you slice it.

  2. says

    I agree with Laura that you should take into account the size of the project. Many smaller projects aren’t worth the hassle.

    I also agree with James that you should incorporate other elements (deposits, etc.) into the mix to protect yourself.

    However, I use a contract for virtually every project. I had my attorney draft a basic contract for me, and I just change the info in “Attachment A” to reflect the scope of work. The core elements stay the same project to project. It’s a very simple, modular approach that takes all of 10 minutes every time I use it.

    James – I hear you on the cross-border payment issue. However, I’m more concerned with liability. If I turn in copy based on info the client provided me…and it turns out that they “borrowed” that content word-for-word from a competitor without my knowledge, then I want to make sure I’m protected.

    Same with the client changing some of the content I turn in. If they alter my content afterwards by adding plagiarized content to it, that’s beyond my control. I want to be covered if they get sued.

    My contract protects me in the rare occasion these things should ever happen. Considering it takes me 5 – 10 min to produce each contract, I think it’s worth it.

  3. says

    Thanks James!

    You bring up an interesting point regarding international law. Today’s freelancing environment is truly without borders.

    Regarding the U.S. and Canada, I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve always believed that those two countries were on good terms legally. (Like, if a U.S. criminal escapes to Canada – they’d send them back and vice versa.)

    Personally, I know that I’ve signed at least one contract with a Canadian company. Maybe they used an international lawyer?

    I’d like to learn more about this topic, though. Does anyone know anything definitive?

  4. says

    I’m a freelance software developer, so there are issues of liability not just payment.

    However, I try not to be overly aggressive about it. I use a software consulting services agreement that generally discusses issues like liability and expected payment terms but doesn’t cover the specific projects. Then, for each project we add a one-page appendix that covers the project description, price, and any assumptions. Once I have an established relationship, I will often just use the email trail for that appendix instead of something more formal.

  5. says

    I have contracts for my clients that are requesting long term work, but for short term gigs I don’t. These are generally at the request of the client. I have never had to ask for a contract on my own, but for extended projects I would consider it.

    As James said, there is not much point of an actual contract when it wouldn’t be financially profitable to enforce it.

    I do keep emails stored on every project, both short and long term, just in case something goes wrong.

  6. says

    Thanks Laura for this post — it comes exactly at a time when I’m trying to float a freelance web design business.

    So far as the contract goes, I just have no clue how to write a legally valid one, and while reaching an agreement on email is a good idea, I think 50-first-50-after will also work. That means I get the 50 percent when the client approves a certain design and layout, and will pay the rest 50 when the site is designed, hosted, launched, email ID’s created, etc.

    And if “Joe walks off into the sunset”? Well he ain’t gettin’ no access to his website or emails… and perhaps a week later, his home page will show somethun like, “Under construction! Hey, can’t you wait, dammit?” …

    And then I’ll Digg it.

  7. says

    This is a good discussion.

    I think that Avonelle brings up a really good point about liability. I don’t think that just applies to programmers, either. I can see liability issues for a wide variety of freelance professions.

    Shannan, I think that for short gigs an e-mail is becoming a norm in some industries. Still, I think it’s important to be careful with that.

    Zakman – You made me laugh with your comment about digging the unfinished website…

  8. says

    i have a contract for big projects like full website designs, and a pared down 1-page ‘scope’ document for smaller projects. the large contract has lots of legal jargon and such. spells out exactly what i’ll do and what i’m liable for (and not liable for). the pared down one basically spells out what the project cost is, scope, timelines and such. just to keep me and the client on the same page.

    for clients that i have a standing relationship with, i know whether or not they’re fast payers and reliable, so generally i don’t get a contract signed for multiple jobs for standing clients.

    great article. i’m glad that you reinforced a lot of what i already do :)

  9. says

    Whether you have a contract or not is perhaps not the question. Having a textual document that outlines the core expectations of each party is critical that would include:

    1) objectives and probably strategies
    2) perhaps tactics
    3) timeline
    4) other assorted expectations about the relationship (perhaps codified and perhaps not)

    Does it need legal language, probably not. However some part of it needs to be textual and probably signed. Thats the lesson of the day from the greatest Tom Cruise movie of all time “Jerry Maguire.”

    Cheers!

  10. says

    I do agree that having a document that describes what you will do will be sufficient enough. I freelanced for over 10 years in web/graphic design and my experience was that I would only do contracts on larger jobs only (and these contracts have actually saved my butt a few times). Smaller jobs were not necessary since the client would come back from time to time with new little projects on top of the initial one.

    And as you know, when freelancing, it’s always good to have work, so thrusting a contract in a potential client’s view may scare them away.

  11. says

    I do mostly regular work, not one-off jobs, as of late. Most of these don’t have formal contracts. But a client’s email to me (re payment, expectation etc) is as good as a contract to me in those cases, because those client’s are lawyers. When I did more content writing and one time jobs, I required a contact that spelled out liability and payment terms, expectations etc. My one exception is with international clients, as those contracts are useless.

  12. says

    I wish I had read this a year ago. I agreed over the phone to work up a book proposal for a client for whom I had already done a small e-book project. Since she’d paid me a small bonus for that work, I wasn’t anticipating problems.

    As agreed, she sent me half up front to do the proposal. Unfortunately, after sending the completed project off to her, she declared I had changed the project too much and she didn’t know if she wanted to pursue it anyways since other things had occurred (I think that a shortage of income were the real culprits).

    So 1)she wouldn’t layout what needed changed and allow me to correct it at no additional cost, 2)she denied that we had agreed on twice the amount of the original payment, 3) she refused further payment.

    Now, she lives in CA and I live in NY. About as bad as trying to deal with someone in Texas from Canada. And all I had were a few emails that were not as clearly laid out as they could have been.

    So, I ate the several hundred dollars loss and figured I had learned an important lesson. At the bare minimum, get expectations and payments in email.

  13. Matt says

    My personal feeling is don’t spend more time on a project without pay than you are willing to lose – regardless of whether you have a contract.

    At one time I had been working for a company for approximately 8 years doing design, writing, programming, you name it. They approached me and asked that I fly out of state to their new facility to assess some of their needs and develop software. They paid for the plane and all expenses. However, I had not asked for any down payment for the trip because of the long standing business relationship. I worked for a week at around 12-15 hour days and had a bill for several thousand dollars (granted it was less than $5k).

    At the end of the trip they issued me an out of state check and said that they needed me to move out of state (and quit college at the time) within a month if we were to keep working together. I declined. They promptly issued a stop payment on the check as they were not expecting me to say this and had no one lined up to fulfill the work that I had been doing.

    I feel Paula’s pain because after talking to attorneys there was no point in pursuing the out of state case as it would drag out and take up more money than it would return.

    Point being that I always require a 50% deposit now on work to be completed and the final 50% on project completion whether the client is a long time one or a one-timer.

    As far as the contract, I don’t really see the point unless the amount is significant enough to go to court over. I normally have a clearly outlined email that states the terms of the project and what I am not liable for.

  14. Nasser says

    Dear Sir
    Iwant work contract for Ineed to immigrat to canada for scor
    Your can help me.
    Iam woking saudi arabia
    Thanks
    Nasser Alftayeh

  15. says

    Really a nice post and was surely great help to me as I am a freelance writer. I have an experience of over 2 years and because i never signed a contract with my clients, some bad experiences obviously were there. Some keep their words and some don’t. But still I think contract procedures may make a lot of delay. Another thing is that many times clients pay when the amount is not so huge and thus gain our trust. But later when the amount is a huge one, they suddenly vanish to vacuum.. painful but have experienced it a lot. Can anyone here help me find some genuine clients for content writing… Actually I was searching for the same and on the way I read this post. Anyway nice post and good tips.. thanks a lot…

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Laura Spencer at Freelance Folder argues that freelancers don’t need an ironclad contract for every single assignment they accept, because it’s a hassle. However, she says she always has some kind of written agreement (even if it’s an email) that sets the framework for the project. If you’re looking for tips and templates for contracts and agreements, check this out. [...]

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