Shop Talk

6 Reasons to Never Freelance Without a Contract

Do you freelance without a contract? Unfortunately, a great number of artists, designers, illustrators and other creative freelancers do – especially when starting out. I know I definitely didn’t think to have one at first, and I was very lucky as generally, my clients were honest people. In an ideal world, we would not need contracts at all; people could trust each other on their word. Wherever that ideal world exists in the multiverse, it definitely doesn’t exist here. Even if freelancing isn’t a significant source of income for you, or any source of income at all, it is absolutely necessary for you to have a contract with each and every one of your clients.

There are multiple good reasons to always, always, ALWAYS have a contract on hand and ready to be signed when working with a new (or even old) client. Here are some of them.

"Marionette Skull Doll" by SpiceTree

1. Having a contract helps prevent issues of nonpayment.

This is, again, very unfortunate, but there ARE people out there who are extremely unscrupulous and will do their best to avoid paying the people who work for them. When there is no contract or paper trail involved, unscrupulous clients will find doing just that very easy. How many freelancers have done work for a client, put all their effort into it, and ended up with part, or even all, of the promised fees unpaid? I guarantee you, there’s quite a few out there. You may be one of them. While a contract may not prevent a situation where you have to hound after a client to make them pay, it does cut down on the amount of dishonest people who just want to get the project done for free.

2. The client knows what they’re going to receive

Generally, clients read the contracts before they sign them. Or, at least, I hope they do. A good contract will list the freelancer’s duties, and what the client should expect to receive (and what they will be charged for it). This prevents a number of issues, because the client and the freelancer will most likely go over the project’s requirements several times before signing the contract. In turn, this helps to cut down on client complaints about the work being not what they wanted, or the price being higher than what they agreed on – though, those obviously won’t be eliminated entirely.

Additionally, you can add a clause against scope creep. A scope creep clause typically states that the freelancer has the right to charge the client for any extra work the client may request that was not originally requested or required as part of the project. If you keep allowing more and more things to be added to the project, you’ll spend hours working on it and end up being paid much, much less per hour than you would have if you’d just denied the requests or charged extra.

3. Contracts will outline contingencies for worst-case scenarios

There might come a time when you’ll need to fire your client. Yes, you can fire your clients, and you should, if they ever turn out to be a nightmare client from freelancing hell. The contract you and your client sign should cover what happens in the eventuality that you no longer want to work with that client.

Additionally, there may also be a case where the client may no longer require your services for whatever reason. A good contract will cover the procedure for severing the business relationship. Do you intend to charge a kill fee? Does the client have to pay for whatever amount of work you’ve already completed? This is, of course, up to you, but just between you and I? If it’s a long-term project, totally charge a kill fee.

You can also outline consequences for late payment and nonpayment for fees in the contract. You should probably do that. That’s a good life choice. You don’t want people to just pay you whenever, right?

"Drawn To See" by Lincke

4. Having a contract protects both the freelancer and the client

Unfortunately, both clients and freelancers have encountered misfortune when working with someone without a contract on hand. Plenty of clients have found themselves left high and dry, their projects unfinished and their money gone. Plenty of clients have ended up with something completely different from what they’d asked for, because what they wanted wasn’t necessarily what they got. Likewise, freelancers have found themselves not being paid for their work, their work being used for purposes they didn’t think it would be used for, or doing something completely different from what the project was originally described as being.

Having a contract that clearly outlines what is expected of each party, what the task is, what the compensation is, and what the consequences for non-completion or non-payment are helps people feel more secure and more confident in working together. There is less risk for both parties involved. When a freelancer and a client feel more comfortable working together, the project at hand becomes easier to do and moves faster. Additionally, having a basis of trust and understanding is quite helpful for building a more permanent working relationship between the client and the freelancer – which is something we all want, right?

5. A contract might not be able to prevent all the bad things, but it can help to prevent or make easier a majority of them.

Contracts aren’t the be-all, end-all protection against issues that may arise while dealing with a client. However, having one CAN and WILL help protect you from a lot of the potential negative consequences. If you need to take your client to court for nonpayment of fees, for example, you’ll have proof they agreed to pay you a certain amount, and then did not deliver. If your work is used for purposes that you didn’t know it was going to be used for, and the client never mentioned – if it’s not in the contract, you have good reason to raise a ruckus about it. To put it plainly, not having a contract is basically inviting the client to screw you over, because you’ll have very little (if anything at all) to pursue them with. You’ll have no rights to your work or to compensation, and proving that you had those things would be much harder than necessary.

6. Even if you know them, doesn’t mean they won’t cheat you.

You also shouldn’t waive the policy of having contracts for people you’re familiar with. Even if you’ve worked with this person in the past, having a contract helps a lot. For example, I had a very stressful encounter with a client early on in my freelancing career.  The client hired me for several projects over the period of a few months, was polite, and always paid promptly. However, one day, the client stopped responding to my emails after I sent over something I had finished for her. I waited a couple days, sent a few emails, no response. I began to get worried. Finally, I called her, four or five days after payment should have come. She didn’t pick up, but emailed me that she’d pay me right away. Spoilers, payment didn’t come right away – it came a month later, with excuses that she’d gone to China – which is a terrible excuse. Of course, I had no grounds on which to charge a month’s worth of late fees, or anything, because I didn’t have a contract. Looking back on it, this could have ended a lot worse, and I was lucky to have gotten paid at all. Would it have happened if I had a contract? Maybe, but at least I could have had some wonderful, wonderful late fees to roll around in.

Sure, plenty of people are good, decent and honest. However, when you are running a business (which you are!) it’s best to ask yourself in every situation, “Is this potential client in a position to somehow screw me over and make life difficult for me?” If the answer is a yes (be it a resounding yes, an ambivalent yes or a questioning yes), you may want to pull up Microsoft Word and type up a contract.

"It's Magic!" by TheDrawbridge

Freelancer Contract Resources:

8 Contract Clauses You Should Never Freelance Without
Helpful tips on which clauses are absolutely necessary in a freelancer contract.

Freelancers Union Contract Creator Tool
Free and simple to use contract maker that creates a template for a freelancer contract, which you can edit in Microsoft Word.

Do’s and Don’ts of Freelance Contracts
Tips on how to write up a foolproof freelancer contract even if you didn’t go to Harvard.

Andy Clarke’s Contract Killer, 3rd Edition
Simple and easy to follow template for creating a freelancer contract, that you can customize to suit your purposes.

 What do you think? Do you ever freelance without a contract? Should you? Let us know in the comments.