Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from my lovely wife and legal counsel, Melissa. Please note: nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice; this article is for general advice only. If you have questions, please consult and attorney directly.
One question most freelancers find themselves asking at some point in their careers is “Do I really need a contract and all the baggage that would carry?” Let me answer that for you: in almost every case, “yes.” And I’m not just saying that because I’m an attorney and care about job security.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary a contract is “an agreement, upon sufficient consideration, to do or not to do a particular thing.” Contracts conjure an image of dozens of indescribable papers. Try, however, to think of a contract as a foundational tool to help facilitate communication between you and your client.
This tool can help establish expectations, fees, and potential problem areas. All three of these areas must be examined before work is undertaken. A contract is not magic. It will not prevent disputes, however, if you use it properly as a tool it can help address these issues before a project is started.
There are four important points to keep in mind when drafting a contract:
Do I Need a Lawyer?
You may ask yourself – do I need to retain an attorney to draft a contract? Maybe. There is no requirement that a contract be written by an attorney to be lawful or enforceable. Some people draft their own contracts and never have any issues. That being said, it would be foolish to undertake a significant project without at least consulting with an attorney. As an attorney, I am clearly biased, however, people have often found their way into my office with problems that could easily have been avoided with a simple conversation at the start.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
There are many resources available on the internet which provide templates and checklists to assist you in preparing a contract. Check out what other’s have done. This helps give you an idea of where to start in drafting your contract.
Be Wary of Free Forms
When digging around the internet it may be tempting to grab a form contract, switch out the names, dates, and fees, and use that as your contract. Don’t do that. Just as every person and job is unique, so is a contract, which must be tailored to a specific client and project. These forms may also be state or industry specific, which may not apply to you.
KISS (Keep It Simply, Stupid)
A contract needn’t be overly complex, it doesn’t need to be fifty pages long, and it doesn’t need to contain fancy words. If you chose to draft your own contract, make it simple and make it readable. Avoid using language or specific words if you do not understand what they mean. If you cannot explain the contract to someone, then you should not be using it.
Are You Willing to Go to Court?
At the end of the day if a client doesn’t pay or something doesn’t work out, are you going to sue? Maybe. If you do, then your contract will be reviewed by a judge, and it may or may not stand up to scrutiny, or the Judge may determine that it is unclear. Most likely if you undertake a job that costs $500.00, you will not spend more to pursue it in court. That being said, allow the contract process to lay the foundation of your relationship with the client. Discuss time frame and fees and potential hurdles to completing the job. Address these issues head-on, do not hide behind a contract, because at the end of the day a contract is just a piece of paper with only as much force as the person behind it.
So, do you need a contract? I would argue that you do, although you need to be aware of the limitations of contracts, and how you will handle things if someone doesn’t follow it. A contract doesn’t have to be complicated or full or fancy words and legal terms. It simply needs to outline the contract in detail so that everyone involved understands what is required of them and the project.