• Advice

Contracts: what you need to know to get started

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Maybe you’re just dipping your toes into the wild world of freelance, or you’re finally deciding to segue from your day job once and for all to pursue what you love.

You land your first gig, and amped up on the thrill of victory you immediately get to work. Everything’s going to be perfect from here on out, you think. Not so fast, freelancers.

Before you get cracking, you need a contract! (Note: we are definitely not lawyers and this post is not intended to be taken as such.)

Whether it’s one someone hands you to sign or whether you’re supposed to draw one up yourself… be sure you know what you’re getting into before you start. Here’s an intro to Contracts 101, presented by Freelancers Union.

Do I really need to write up a contract?

Imagine these scenarios…

- You waste time chasing down checks

- You’re constantly haggling down the requirements of a proposed project that just keeps getting more complicated

- You keep watching your invoices float off into the ether

Any of them sound familiar? If the answer is yes, you need to start writing up contracts! If you’ve never experienced any of the above, count yourself lucky — and then keep reading. Better safe than sorry!

A contract does several things, all of which are very good for you and your client. It sets the parameters of the project, the scope of your work on it (for example, revisions or project cancellations), and any deadlines. It also settles financial things, like payment amount, timing, and reimbursement.

A contract protects you from clients who, unsavory or no, might not have the best business practices. It’ll ensure that the project goes exactly as agreed, and that you’ll get paid at the end — sounds simple, but it’s good to be covered. A contract can also save you from messy legal trouble, should you or your client end up in a disagreement.

What should I include in my contract?

Great question. There are a lot of things that should be included in contracts. Here’s a list of them-- for more in-depth info, check out this blog post.

Scope of work - What will the project consist of? What is the freelancer expected to provide? Be as specific as possible!

Ownership of work - Who owns the final product, whether it’s a logo, app, or other intangible? Does the freelancer retain rights to the design, or does it belong to the client?

Revisions - How many revisions can the client ask for, and will the freelancer charge for revisions of a finished project?

Deadlines - This may seem obvious, but it’s necessary information! When does the project need to be completed? When is payment due?

Payment Amount - Again, this sounds obvious, but it’s important to agree on a rate and stick to it. If you charge an hourly rate, how will timekeeping be done? How will you invoice your client?

Payment timing and late fees - You want to make sure that you get paid on time! Include language around payment timing, late fees, and other repercussions.

Reimbursement of expenses - This section might not apply to every project, but before you set out to pick up supplies for that photoshoot, make sure you know whether you’ll be reimbursed or not.

Kill fees - For one reason or another, sometimes projects just don’t work out. Still, a freelancer shouldn’t put in hours on a project that gets spiked without pay. Kill fees are an important part of a contract — they’ll ensure that even if the client cancels the project, you won’t be stiffed.

So… how do I start writing up a contract?

Well, you can take a stab at it using your best fancy business talk… but we wouldn’t recommend it. It’s way easier to just check out Freelancers Union’s Contract Creator, which will generate one for you after you fill out all the information. It’s quick, easy, and will save you a lot of trouble in the future.

For info on how to draw up an entire project proposal, check out our post on it here.

And even if you don’t have to write your own contracts, knowing what all these terms mean will make sure you can double-check any contract a client might ask you to sign. Remember to read the fine print, and happy freelancing!

Larissa Pham is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is definitely not a lawyer.