Legalese for Freelancers: Creating a Contract
It’s a hot topic: Should freelancers use a contract? And if so, how do you go about creating one?
By now, you have probably gotten the idea that if you want to be in serious business as a freelancer, you’ve got to get things in writing. So, where do you start? How do you face the legalese demons? Relax and read on—I promise it’s not that hard if you keep an open mind. Remember, half the things we do in our businesses (for me, accounting and marketing) aren’t things we necessarily like. This is probably one of them for you. But it’s also a vital step in ensuring a professional business that runs smoothly.
First, decide what you need out of a contract. The basic contract includes information on your pay rate, payment timeline and a deadline for the project to be submitted. If you look at my contract, I have a clause in there about being able to use work on my Web portfolio because that was important to me. Whatever else you want to stipulate, it’s good to make a list highlighting the points you need covered.
Now it’s time to create the document. This will not be enjoyable or easy in most cases, but it’s a must. My contract is a good place to start, but you may want to scour the Internet and look at other freelancers’ sites to get an idea of what common agreements say. It’s okay if the copy–paster in you wants to come out here, but don’t solely rely on that to originate a document. You want the agreement to be customized to suit the specific needs of your business.
So this is where you piece something together. Then you can go through and fine tune it. Again, this may make your head spin, especially because it’s hard to comprehend legalese. Of course, you can always have your lawyer draw up something, but you may save money by making a basic agreement by yourself. This is what I did. I pieced mine together and had a lawyer review it.
Next, review the contract. I can’t stress how important it is to have someone else review the document. Not just for proofreading functions, either! This is a legally binding document and you want to make sure it’s legitimate—so use a lawyer. Embrace the bazillions of legal eagles out there, find one you like, and get the green light to use the written agreement. I had to make sure that I knew exactly what was in my contract. This way if questions come up, I know what the legal mumbo jumbo means.
Then it’s good to get comfortable with what the document says so you can “sell” it. Make sure you’re ready to defend it and explain clauses to prospective and existing clients. If you don’t know what it says, there’s no point in pushing for it to be signed. In addition, you’ll need to get comfortable promoting the use of a contract. Some clients may understand the use for it—others are squeamish about signing anything. That’s why you can refer those shy ones to the part of the contract that says that the agreement can be terminated. Show them the exit strategy. But more so than that, sell the benefits of the contract. It offers protection for you and for them as well.
Are you a little timid about mentioning the contract? That’s okay. If you need to look into a mirror to practice your “sell,” then do it. You may be a little shy now, but think of all the aggravation you’ll save should you enter into a big work deal with someone who skips town. Trust me; you don’t want to spend hours and money to track the customer down—or have to retain a collection agency to do it. This is a preventative measure. Use it on every client—even the ones you already trust.
Finally, implement the agreement. You may want to put it on your website. Definitely travel to client appointments with a copy of the contract in case a potential client wants to see what it’s all about. Don’t make it a secret—show that this is a simple agreement you’re comfortable with. Approaching existing clients with the contract? That’s easy—just explain to customers that this is a new formality you’ve instituted to ensure prompt payment. You can even point out that all clients aren’t as great as they are, but you want to be consistent. It’s also vital to use an agreement even on small jobs. Again, even with long-time clients you trust. It’s just a good business practice and it makes you more professional. For me, putting the contract on my website worked.
So, no, this isn’t an easy process, but it may be the most valuable thing you do as a freelancer. It’s hard to promote something you may not understand or think you need. But with time, and as you put the contract together, you’ll see what a valuable tool it is. Carve out some time to research contracts, grab a sticky note and start jotting down ideas. You’ll be glad you did.
Kristen Fischer is a copywriter and author living in New Jersey. Check out more on her copywriting business at www.kristenfischer.com.