The joy of freelancing or setting up your own business means selecting the work you want to do and the clients with whom you want to work. But as with most things in life, there is always a trade-off. The freedom to choose your work also means that you, and you alone, are left to deal with clients who change the scope of work, drag out revisions, or refuse to pay.
One of the ways to protect yourself and the value of your work is through client contracts. In simplest terms, client contracts lay out the scope and price of work to be done, the expected timeframe, and the expectations of deliverables and payment. A simple contract also protects your client, so clients should have no concerns or hesitancies about signing one, and all negotiations should instead be about the details of the contract. (In other words, if a client balks at signing a simple statement of work, take that as a red flag and beware.)
Let’s layout what to include in a contract, what it protects, and how to create one.
What to include in a freelance client contract
A freelance client contract is a legal document you can use in court if either side fails to hold up their agreed-upon responsibilities. For small and solo business owners, a contract can also help prevent clients from taking advantage, such as adding on additional requests or dragging out multiple rounds of revisions.
Agreements do not have to be complicated or lengthy but should be a concise document summarizing all back and forth planning that occurred during the proposal phase. The essential items to include (as appropriate):
- Contact information. Include complete contact information for all parties involved, including preferred method of communication and hours during which the client can expect responses.
- Payment expectations. Include net payment terms, expected form of payment, and any details about possible deposits, upfront costs, or charge-back expenses. (You will also likely need to submit a W9, including EIN. Check out our checklist of things to consider when starting a business.)
- Project scope. Your initial proposal can be repurposed and updated to include any post-proposal negotiations. Describe the work to be completed, time frame, expectations for feedback, and updated cost.
- Deliverables. Be specific about what will be delivered upon project completion, including file types and the delivery method. If there are any questions of copyright or ownership, clarify those details here as well.
- Costs. Again, be specific. Fees should have been included with the project proposal, so there should be no great surprises here. Be sure to document costs if the project deadline is extended due to the client.
- Cancellation terms. Sometimes a project does not go as intended. To protect yourself, include payment expectations if you or your client cancels a project before the project is complete.
- Signatures. No contract is binding without the written agreement of both parties, so consider how you will obtain signatures. Adobe Acrobat allows for document protection and routing for signatures. Electronic signatures are valid.
Why create a freelance client contract
As discussed, a freelance client contract is a legal document that protects both you and your client. When created correctly, a client contract:
- Avoids scope creep. Every freelancer has had clients who try to squeeze just one more change or one more addition. That’s time (and money) out of your pocket. A carefully detailed contract acts as a reference guide to give the freelancer grounds to say no, and help the client understand the value behind their requests.
- Releases the shackles of an unresponsive client. You’ve put in hours of work and are at the end of a project, and suddenly the client has gone MIA. With a signed contract that includes specific timeframes, you are free to bill for the work that has been completed and move on to another (hopefully responsive) client in the meantime.
- Ensures prompt and complete payment. It’s pretty cut and dry. If a client has signed a contract, you have delivered on all contractual promises, and yet they refuse or neglect to pay, you now have the legal evidence needed to get your earned money.
How to create a freelance client contract
This one is simple enough. A primary document with your company logo, laying out the above-discussed details, can be routed to all parties for signature. If desired, you can verify details with a lawyer, but the language from your price book and proposal should be sufficient to layout the agreed-upon work for both you and your client. Once signatures have been obtained, enjoy the peace of mind of knowing your work will be both valued and compensated.