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August 8, 2015

Creatives & Contracts

A woman writing in a notebook
Photo by Nattakorn Maneerat, Getty Images
Since becoming a freelancer, my skillfulness has truly been put to the test. Being self-employed will test your ability to be disciplined, to be focused, and other competencies that you might not have realized you had. Managing finances, sales(wo)manship, and effective communication are all critical skills to have when you work for yourself; skills that Creatives don’t necessarily learn on the job.

Another indispensable skill I’ve had to develop is the ability to draft a contract. I’m no Robert Shapiro, but I know enough to protect my interests when taking on new clients. Some clients will be great, some clients will be difficult, and some clients will be downright impossible; those are the ones you need to run from… posthaste.  

The projects with great clients are easy, they tend to run smoothly, no sweat.  The projects with difficult clients are not so great. But no matter the client dynamic, a solid contract can potentially alleviate issues before they arise during the course of your engagement. This article is not meant to serve as legal advice, these are just a few observations and lessons I learned along my journey. If you’re a fellow independent creative, hopefully you’ll find some useful tips and actionable information.

One Contract Does Not Fit All

I can’t stress enough the importance of defining the scope of work in your contract. Each client is different and each project has its own unique requirements.  Customize the contract to suit your engagement and make sure the document is fair, comprehensive and protects the interests of both you and your client.  You may also want to seek the advice of an attorney or use an online legal service like Legal Zoom or Avvo.

S-P-E-L-L It Out

Make sure every deliverable and every task is explicitly called out. If you add, change or omit anything during the negotiation process, you must revise your contract. Don’t agree to anything without it being documented and above all, make sure it’s signed by both parties. It will save you a lot of headaches and it’s legally binding should you need it.

All About the Benjamins

One of the cons of freelancing (aside from tax time) is receiving prompt payment.  Make sure you detail financials including any retainer stipulations, invoice remittance procedures, and any penalties that are applied if payment isn’t received in a timely manner.  Additionally, if there are ancillary expenses that will need to be incurred (stock photography, travel, etc.), those need to be accounted for as well, along with who will be responsible for them.

Location, Location, Location

Some freelancers work onsite, some won’t step foot in an office, and some split their time between an office and remote locations. I personally prefer working remotely. Working in an office from 9-to-5, five days a week, feels like I’m back to being a full-time corporate employee again—without the benefits. That arrangement defeats the purpose of freelancing, in my opinion. But no matter where you choose to work, it’s important to call that out in your contract so there’s no misunderstanding. You should also include how many hours you’ll be working, how frequently you’ll be communicating with your client, and the communication channels you’ll use.

To Bill or Not to Bill

It’s important that the client understands what tasks fall under billable and which do not.  That hour-long design review via webinar may fall under billable hours to you, but your client may have a different opinion. Tasks like R&D, meetings and revisions are typically billable, whereas pitching, invoicing and emailing are not. Be sure that you’re on the same page and include it in the contract to avoid any invoice surprises.

‘Round and ‘Round We Go

Rounds of revisions don’t have to drive you crazy if you define them in your contract.  Generally, I consent to three reasonable rounds within the scope of work. Anything beyond that requires a reassessment of the financial terms. Quantifying rounds of revisions compels the client to carefully review the work in detail, organize their thoughts, and send concise feedback. In the end, keeping billable hours manageable is mutually beneficial to both you and your clients.

The Out Clause

In a perfect world, your project will go as smoothly as possible.  But the reality is, it doesn’t. People get sick, commitments occur, hard drives implode…things happen. In most instances, you can navigate your way back on track, however, there may be times where recovery isn’t possible. You’re providing a specialized service to help your client meet their business goals, and likewise, they are providing you with invaluable insights about their business to help you produce the best solution. You both have a vested interest in the success of the project. If you find yourself feeling more like a subordinate rather than a collaborator, you need to re-evaluate the situation. Define the terms of what happens if you need to part ways, therein, it’s documented, understood, and there’s no hard feelings.

Take Time For Yourself

Freelancing is hard work and requires long hours from time to time, but a solid contract will help to minimize excessive hours. Your time should be spent doing meaningful work that makes you excited. Always remember that happiness is more valuable than busyness. Establish work hours and stick to them. Don’t overbook yourself. Take breaks when you need to and get your vacation on! You have unlimited vacation time to use whenever the heck you want. Not a lot of people can say that. Seize your opportunity and go for it.

Get Help If You Need It

While writing contracts isn’t very sexy, it’s necessary.  Below are some resources to help you get started. Good luck!

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