Contracts may just seem like extremely boring—and vaguely scary—pieces of paper you sign and then never look at (or honestly even try to think about) again.
But they outline clients’ expectations of you and also your expectations of them. So used wisely, a contract can serve as a great road map to the kind of successful client relationships you want. Here are four things people doing creative work should know about how to use their contracts to their advantage.
#1: Most important thing to know about your contract: HAVE ONE!
We wish this one was self-evident, but the fact is that tons of freelancers and consultants get into business arrangements absent any documentation at all. Maybe you are one of these people and you’re thinking, “hey, it’s always worked out for me!”
How nice for you. But that still doesn’t make it a good idea.
Beyond the obvious ways that someone who isn’t covered by a contract can get screwed, not having a contract subtly communicates to a client that you don’t take the work as seriously as some of your peers—which isn’t a great message to send. Having something for clients to sign, even if it’s quite basic, shows you aren’t just looking to “get paid” but to run an actual business: build your portfolio, expand your client network, and so forth.
Plus, contracts are a great place to describe in some detail the nature of the work you will actually be doing for a client. Most of us have seen how ambiguity on what a client really wants can be one of the most frustrating parts of freelancing! Having a contract increases the likelihood that by the time you actually start working on the project you will have already at least discussed with the client things like timetables, descriptions of deliverables, and standards around how to work together and communicate with each other. Professionalism for the win!
#2: Flex your rights and GET PAID
Working unbilled hours. Doing more revisions than your contract says. Giving the client a couple extra weeks to pay. Any of that sound familiar?
We all know how hard it can be to demand clients stick to the letter of what a contract says. Sometimes this is because a client is pushy, entitled, or just really important to your career, and you’re afraid to make them mad. Or on the other side, maybe it’s because the client is someone you really get along with personally and bringing up conversations about money and contracts with them just feels super awkward.
Either way, here’s the deal: no matter how mushy the boundaries between colleague, client, and friend can feel, in the professional world if you signed a contract with someone (and we really, really hope you did), you can insist that they hold up their end of the agreement at any time. Don’t let clients try to guilt or bully you into giving up your rights by acting like you set a precedent you can’t change (like, “Yea I know what the contract says, but if you wanted to be picky about following it you shouldn’t have agreed to work weekends last month!”).
No matter how casually you treated the client’s obligations in the past, whenever you decide enough is enough and it’s time to get paid, don’t forget your contract is your friend!
#3: Keep channels of communication with your client open
Sometimes it goes the other direction and you are the one taking advantage of the fact that some parts of your contract aren’t being enforced. Maybe you are supposed to submit updates or work by 5pm but you consistently get it in by 7:30pm, and the client doesn’t seem to mind. So everyone’s happy, right?
Sure, for now. If flexibility is working in your favor at the moment, it’s your right to roll with that.
But it’s a little risky to assume established patterns will just continue on indefinitely. Instead, consider talking to the client about the disjoint between what your contract says and what’s happening on the ground. This gives them a chance to clarify expectations before any conflict arises, and even opens the possibility of updating documents to reflect what is happening in real life (it’s always better if the contract matches reality). At a bare minimum, it signals to the client that you understand your agreement and encourages open communication.
#4: Never fly blind
It can’t be stated strongly enough that you should read and understand your whole contract. I know, I know—how?
It’s not easy. But the fact is that courts have consistently ruled that contracts are still considered valid even if one side didn’t really understand what they signed, even if the other side knew they didn’t understand it! Kind of depressing, I know. But it doesn’t change the reality that if something were ever to go wrong between you and a client and you ended up in court, the excuse “I didn’t know what I was signing” is almost never going to fly.
Even if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer, you can still put in the work to make sure you aren’t flying blind. Get on the internet; hit up your friends who have a background in law, or who are just super brainy, to help explain some of this stuff to you; pick up a copy of “Contracts for Dummies”—whatever you need to do to feel confident that you understand what you are signing!