If you’re new to freelancing, it’s likely this scenario hits a bit too close to home:
A prospective client emails you to ask about your rates or to find out if you’re available for a project. You get on the phone with them, and after a quick consultation, you send over an estimate. Your client agrees and you get started on the project, happy to know that money is coming in and looking forward to getting to work.
Then some combination of the following happens:
- Your client takes forever to send important materials you need to begin working on the project.
- While you’re in the middle of working, they email you asking if you can do a bunch of quick tasks that have nothing to do with the project and “shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
- When you turn in a preliminary draft of your work for your client’s feedback, they don’t respond for several days, bringing the project to a halt.
- When the client finally provides feedback, they also invite a bunch of people you’ve never met to add their input.
- The delay in response and overwhelming revisions puts you under major deadline pressure.
- Your client surprises you with a last-minute change, but still needs you to deliver the work by their deadline.
- You get what you think is a final draft delivered on time, but they still have more revisions for you to make.
- Meanwhile, this project has demanded so much time that you haven’t had a chance to work on other business priorities, like marketing, so once this project ends you won’t have new business in your pipeline.
- Finally, the day comes when you deliver the final product, along with your invoice, and the client, who had been emailing you on a daily basis, suddenly vanishes. Your reminder emails get increasingly forceful as your bank balance gets smaller. If you hear back from them at all, they act huffy about having to pay you and try to weasel their way out of paying the full amount.
If the above description gives you flashbacks from your latest nightmare client, first of all, sorry bringing back painful memories. Second, we’ve all been there before. Getting burned by pain-in-the-bleep clients is a rite of passage most newbie freelancers go through—sometimes more than once.
In fact, according to a 2018 survey by PayPal, 58% of freelancers have experienced not getting paid for their work. That is a huge amount of flat-out exploitation.
Fortunately, there is a straightforward way to avoid this fate, keep clients happy, and get paid what you’re worth and on time, and we’ll show you exactly how.
Disclaimer: this article is for informational purposes only and does not offer legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.
Why Do So Many Clients Take Advantage of Freelancers?
Now, I’m sure that most clients would never consider what they’re doing to be exploitative. In fact, they may think they’re doing you a favor by hiring you. So why is it they think they can get away with so many things they’d never tolerate from someone they work for? A few reasons.
1. Your client may see you as an amateur.
If you’re in a creative field, unfortunately some non-creative clients think your work is a passion, not a profession. They may be under the impression that you are motivated purely by a love of what you do, and you’d do it even if you didn’t get paid for it.
And frankly, some creatives get squirmy about treating their business as…a business. We love what we do so much that we sometimes blur the lines between client relationships and friendships. We get embarrassed or second-guess ourselves when we set our rates or ask for payment.
So we get clients who offer things like “exposure” as compensation or promise to hire you for more projects after you do an unpaid “test project.”
To nip this misperception in the bud, you need to be clear about your level of professionalism and expertise by demonstrating that your business is indeed a business, and if a client wants to engage you, they’ll have to pay you—well.
2. Your client may see themselves as your employer.
Some people think that if they hire a freelancer, it means they have exclusive rights to the freelancer’s time and attention. They may not understand that you have other client projects to work on. They may not even consider that you have a family or a life outside of work, so they expect you to be on-call, 24/7.
When you’re new to freelancing, you may still be in the employee mindset, where you’re worried about getting fired if you don’t do what your bossy client demands. If client work is still hard for you to come by, you may also have a scarcity mindset that makes you anxious about where the next job will come from.
Let’s be clear: your client is not your boss. As a freelancer, you are your own boss. Your time and attention does not belong to your client beyond the scope of the work you’ve agreed to. Which means you and your client need to communicate expectations of what work you will and will not do and when you are and are not available to do it.
3. Your client may have been burned in the past, too.
Let’s face it: we’re living in a gig economy, which means everyone is hustling and any schmo can put up a website and claim to be the real deal. There are plenty of scammers out there, not to mention well-meaning but underperforming freelancers. And not everyone’s operating at the level of professionalism that you pride yourself on.
So it’s understandable that your client may be wary about handing over cash up front to a total stranger, which means you need to convince them that you’re a legit business and will honor your end of an agreement.
All of these problems can be solved by one not-so-secret weapon: the freelancer contract.
I know. Ew. Especially if you’re a creative entrepreneur, the very thought of drafting a document full of legalese may send you into flight mode. After all, you’re no lawyer, and how would you even know what to put in the contract to make it legal?
Believe it or not, learning how to create a freelance contract is easier than you think, and you don’t need to pass the bar to make one. What’s more, the act of creating a contract helps you define and communicate important boundaries you need to set to protect your personal and professional wellbeing.
We’ve put together an easy-to-follow how-to on drafting a freelancer contract that will keep your projects on schedule and within scope, manage your client expectations, and get the money into your bank account. We’ve also provided a few templates for you to copy and paste into your own agreements, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
1. Define Your Scope of Work
The scope of work (aka statement of work, aka SoW) is a detailed description of the service you’ll be delivering to your client.
Why do you need a scope of work?
Imagine you’re a copywriter who’s been hired to write a sales page for a client. One morning you get a message from the client asking you to write up a quick email for them. “It shouldn’t take long,” the client writes with a smiley emoji. You shrug and write the email. After all, you want to impress them so they hire you for more stuff once your sales page project is done.
You go back to writing the sales page when you get another message from the client: Can you proofread and edit a blog post? And what are your thoughts on the headline?
You’re happy to oblige, but start to feel like this client is beginning to monopolize your time with these one-off requests. They’re taking your attention away from your main project, as well as other client work.
This is where a scope of work comes in handy. When you outline precisely what your client hired you to do and how you will go about doing it, it prevents what is known as “scope creep”—changes or uncontrolled growth of a project while it’s still in progress.
How to create a scope of work that prevents scope creep:
- Document all of the goals and requirements of your project
Before you create a scope of work, you should have an in-depth conversation with your client about what they want to accomplish with this project and when they’ll need to have it complete. You, in turn, can communicate what you’ll need to complete the project in terms of time, materials, and money.
Tip: Record and transcribe your project scope consultation.
You can use the key points of your conversation in the summary section of your SoW.
- Establish a process all parties must agree to before making changes
Every project manager can tell you that even when you put every possible detail in a scope of work, not everything goes to plan. Your SoW should communicate what everyone needs to do to make changes to the scope.
Tip: Be sure to clearly state that you’ll charge extra for extra work.
It’s perfectly okay and common to say “any work requested outside the scope of this project will be charged $X per hour and invoiced separately.” Some freelancers even charge time and a half for extra work, since it’s taking them away from other client projects.
- Create a clear project schedule
After you’ve outlined all the requirements for the project, turn it into a detailed task list with expected dates of completion for each task.
Tip: Once you’ve outlined a schedule, be sure to build in extra time for contingencies.
The surest path to failure is not planning for it. Illness, client work emergencies, and other life events can cause projects to go off the rails. Best to leave room for life so you aren’t overpromising and under-delivering.
2. Define Who Will Be Involved
As freelancers, we think of ourselves as working one-on-one with the client who hired us, when in reality the client acts as the point person for an entire company. If you don’t figure out who will be involved from the beginning, you run the risk of unpleasant surprises like nitpicky feedback from people who have nothing to do with the project. Worse, your work can sit in someone’s inbox limbo awaiting approval, which means you aren’t getting paid.
The best way to keep your project from going off the rails because your client’s aunt Mildred says she’s not fond of the colors in your logo design? The DACI Framework.
What’s the DACI Framework?
DACI is an acronym for the four main roles of stakeholders involved in a project. It’s a tool project managers use to remove any ambiguity as to who is responsible for what.
The DACI roles:
The person overseeing the entire project from start to finish.
Typical driver responsibilities:
- Scheduling team meetings
- Engaging people inside and outside the company for feedback
- Creating a detailed plan of action for the project
- Following up on tasks assigned to people involved in the project
- Communicating updates
Depending on your level of engagement as a freelancer, this could be you. Many times the driver of a project is the client who hired you and who you have the most contact with as you deliver on assigned tasks.
Approvers are the folks who have the power to sign off on or veto a project. They’re usually a supervisor or executive, depending on the size of the company. Sometimes drivers are also approvers.
The contributors/consultants are experts the driver brings in to work on the project. They directly engage their skills and knowledge to bring the project to life. As a freelancer, this person is typically you.
These are the people who don’t have authority over the project, but need to be updated on its status. For example, if you’ve been hired to write an ebook for a B2B company, their graphic designer will need to be kept informed of your progress and any images you want to include.
3. Outline the Approval Process and Revisions Clause
In addition to providing an overview of DACI in your contract, it’s also important to go over the internal approval process your work will be going through.
For example, if your client has a committee they need to report to before providing feedback and they only meet once a month, you’ll know to incorporate that into your project schedule.
You also need to communicate the number of revisions you’re willing to make before charging your client for extra work.
4. Defining Ownership and Copyright
When the project is complete, are you handing over all rights to your creative work, or are you retaining some rights?
According to Art Law Journal, the general rule is that you hold the copyright to any artistic or literary work you create. That is, no one can copy, distribute, or display the work without your permission.
This is why, if your client plans to publish or distribute your work, you need to include explicit permission to do so in your contract. In your agreement, specifically state that it is a work made for hire as part of one of the following nine categories:
- a contribution to a collective work
- part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
- a translation
- a supplementary work
- a compilation
- an instructional text
- a test
- answer material for a test
- an atlas
That said, as the creator of the work, you can choose to retain any number of rights. For example, you can require a byline on all written work, feature samples of your work in your portfolio, or even display your work as part of an exhibit in a gallery. Just be sure to declare the rights to do so in the contract, to avoid any confusion.
If you intend to hold all copyrights to the work, and only grant your client permission to use your work for a limited period of time or in limited markets, you’ll need to spell out these permissions in a licensing agreement. You can download a free one from Art Law Journal here.
5. Deadlines and Responsibilities
Yep, the dreaded D-word. But these aren’t deadlines for you (which you’ve already established in your scope of work). They’re for your clients!
Communicate to your client that in order for you to deliver your work on time, they’ll be responsible for holding up their end of the bargain by providing you with materials and feedback in a timely manner. Because the last thing you want is for your project to sit on hold for two months while your client is having trouble choosing between “rose” and “blush” in their brand colors.
6. Pricing, Payments, Fees, and Expenses
It’s icky to talk about, but you want to be as explicit as possible when it comes to the moolah.
Here’s what you need to outline in the contract:
Your rates – Are you charging by the hour or by the deliverable?
Estimated total – If you’re charging by the hour, discuss the estimated amount of work, how it relates to your rates, and the corresponding payment estimate. If you’re charging by deliverable (aka service rendered), you can itemize the cost of each element.
The payment schedule – Are you expecting to be paid up front or within 30 days of kicking off the project? Do you charge 50% up front and then 25% mid-project, 25% upon delivery?
The invoice schedule and payment methods – When will you be billing your client, and through what methods can they pay you? Can they set up autopayments for a long-term project retainer?
Late fees and penalties – If your client is late on a payment, will they be charged a fee? How about if they miss a deadline? (Yes, you can charge fees for missed deadlines, because the project is taking up valuable room on your schedule!)
7. Early Termination
What if your client changes their mind mid-project or you decide that you can’t proceed on a project? This section protects both parties from getting ghosted.
Be sure to include:
- The amount of notice needed for termination
- When you will stop working
- How you will deal with refunds if you end the agreement early
- Any “kill fees” to ensure that, if the client terminates early, you get some kind of financial compensation for the abrupt loss of planned income
Any official contract wouldn’t be, well, official, without language that acknowledges the binding nature of the agreement and the legal consequences of not honoring the agreement as outlined. Consequences like suing for payment in court (but let’s hope it never has to come to that).
Even if you’re working with an international client, it’s in your best interest to state that any legal proceedings in the event of nonpayment will be under the jurisdiction of your local laws. Don’t worry, the language sounds more intimidating than it actually is to write, and there are templates aplenty you can use to plug in the legalese. But if you want to make sure the formalities of your contract are rock-solid, it can’t hurt to have a lawyer go over it.
Contracts Are for Everyone Involved
Feeling shy about asking your client to sign a contract? It’s important that your client understands that a freelancer contract is there to protect all parties and hold them accountable to their responsibilities. If you’re having trouble getting your client to sign off on what’s outlined above, this may not be a good client for you.
At the same time, some clients may have special requirements of their own, like non-disclosure agreements, that you can accommodate to create a foundation of trust. Because that’s really what a contract is: an agreement to move forward in your business relationship because you can trust each other to stick to what the contract says.
Create Your Own Freelancer Contract With a Customizable Template
Now that you understand the essential elements of a freelancer contract, it’s time to bring your own to life. We’ve created an easy-to-use template that you can download and customize with every new client you sign on.
Your contract acts as a solid shield to protect against client nightmares. May you book many contracts in your freelancing career—and land dream clients!
Have any client nightmares that could have been prevented with a contract? Drop a comment below!