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In the midst of working with a friend on a contract, he sent me an e-mail with the quote “You can’t have a good contract with a bad person.”* He hates contracts. A lot of freelancers and business owners do. They slow down projects and are a hallmark of the corporate world.

As an attorney, I’d argue that you can have a good contract with a bad person, but not a good outcome. But I agree with the point: don’t enter into working relationships with bad people, it will only lead to legal and financial heartache. Deal with good people, but use a contract anyway.

Deal with good people

No freelancer has set out with the intention of working with a bad client, yet most have. It’s easy to ignore early warning signs and justify working with a bad person when you could really use the extra money. Don’t fall into this trap. Long-term, bad people lead to bad results like wasted time, money and energy.

It’s hard to catch all of them, but if you start by avoiding or dumping these bad seeds you’ll be well on your way:

Mad at the World Mark – Mark hates his prior graphic designer and his prior photographer and his prior wife and that slow driver in front of him. In fact, you’re not sure if Mark likes anyone…except for you. When you meet, Mark seems to take a liking to you and expresses an interest in using your services. Don’t be duped, Mark will turn on you too eventually.

No Contract Needed Nancy – Nancy is a friend of a friend that has agreed to pay you to complete a project for her. You sent Nancy a contract to sign but it’s been over a week and she hasn’t. When you bring it up, she avoids the topic or makes you feel guilty by talking about how contracts are unnecessary if you trust the person you’re working with. But if Nancy is such a good client, why is she concerned with signing a contract? It doesn’t cost her any extra time or money, it simply provides a safety net if she doesn’t comply. Just say “nah” to working with Nancy.

Freddie Freeloader – Freddie monopolizes your time from the first meeting where he spends an hour talking in what was scheduled as a 20-minute consultation. He is constantly asking for free work or trying to add big changes to the scope of work without paying extra. Freddie will suck your energy and the time that you could be spending on work for other clients who pay you for all your expended time.

Use a contract anyway

By avoiding the bad clients, you’ll be left with the good clients…but use a contract anyway. Think about the childhood game of telephone where players whisper a word or a phrase to one another in a chain. What the last person in the chain thinks they heard is compared with the word or message that the first person spoke and the two are rarely the same. The same thing happens with agreements, they can get lost in translation, even among close friends. One person might really think the agreement was for “A” while the other person thinks that they agreed to “B.”

A contract gives each party the ability to review what was agreed to in writing to make sure it reflects what they thought they were agreeing to. It is also much easier to enforce than a verbal agreement. A contract doesn’t have to be complicated. For simple matters, start by ensuring that the contract identifies the parties, sets out each party’s responsibilities, details any required deadlines, lays out compensation, and is signed by all parties as proof that it is the final recitation of the agreement.

The challenge I challenge you to give it a try. For the next three months, only “work with good people, but use a contract anyway.” You’ll be protecting yourself legally and I suspect you’ll also be much happier with your freelancing business and clients.

*He attributed this quote to Warren Buffet but I haven’t been able to find support for this. I’m beginning to wonder if he made it up and cited Buffet for authority. Either way, good quote.

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