Contracts might seem like scary, mystifying documents, and I see many young freelancers avoid issuing and signing them. But a contract simply exists to protect you and your business by managing expectations. At this point, I wouldn’t do a project for anyone without a contract, not even friends and family. (In fact, I would argue that it’s even more important to clarify professional expectations when personal relationships come into play.) Here’s what you should include in your creative freelance contract.
Please note that this post does not construe legal advice of any kind. This is based on my personal experience working with clients and other business owners as well as the service agreement written by my small business attorney.
Parts of a Freelance Contract
There are three main sections a contract should include:
- Scope of work
- Terms of service
- Terms of contract
I’ll walk through each section and provide examples of terms or clauses that would belong in each section.
(Side note: If you’re in a position where a client or publication is asking you to sign a contract in order to work with them, review it with these terms in mind. Remember that their contract will be designed to protect them so make sure that it has terms that are workable for you as well.)
Scope of Work
The scope of work describes what you are going to be doing. You can lay out the project scope in a proposal or separate statement of work document that becomes part of the contractual agreement. I have my clients sign one service agreement governing all of our work together and then generate individual work statements (and invoices) for different projects. Make sure your scope of work section includes:
Describe the product(s) or service you’re going to provide, along with any important drafts or milestones along the way.
- Graphic designer: 1 brand suite with logo files, brand colors, and font selections; 4 initial concepts, 3 rounds of revision
- Life coach: Coaching package with biweekly coaching calls for six months, homework assignment and review, and 3 months of email follow-up
- Influencer/content creator: 2 sponsored posts per month, posted on specified social media accounts and content channels, post analytics delivered 30 days after posting
Assign deadlines for final deliverables and intermediate steps such as brainstorming meetings, drafts or concepts, review sessions, etc.
Include the total project cost as well as a breakdown of each phase or installment payment (if applicable). I always include a list of payment amounts and dates clearly spelled out. I also itemize any anticipated expense items like theme or graphics licenses, but some professionals prefer not to do that, particularly if they buy supplies like paper or film in bulk and have a hard time breaking that out by individual client.
(Read more about pricing your creative services here.)
Terms of Service
The terms of service describe how you and the client will work together. In many ways, the terms of service codifies how you operate. This is where you establish expectations for payment, project schedule, communication, usage, etc. Do not assume that your clients will know any of these things unless you tell them outright. They are not here to “support your business;” they are here to get a need met. It’s your job to manage the project in a way that works for you. Your terms of service generally should not change drastically from project to project. This will help you maintain a consistent internal workflow which you can then confidently explain to clients.
Creative work often entails several drafts or iterations, and you’ll need to get client feedback in order to deliver the final product. Make sure your freelance contract specifies how and when clients should provide feedback. You also want to explain that project progress depends on getting their revision requests in a timely manner. Reiterate the agreed-upon scope of the project and, if possible, define what represents a change in scope that would require additional fees and time for completion. Don’t forget to let clients know how quickly they can expect responses from you – the working relationship goes both ways!
- Graphic designer: Communicate requested changes by email within 3 business days of receiving concepts or revisions.
- Life coach: Client shall complete homework assignments by the specified deadlines and Coach will provide written feedback within 2 business days. Client should review this feedback before the next scheduled coaching call.
- Influencer/content creator: Client to review sponsored post and request any changes to captions or other copy within 1 business day of receipt. Photographs will be planned with Client ahead of time and cannot be altered after photo shoot has taken place according to project schedule.
Provide your preferred methods for client communication. This might seem like micromanaging until clients are texting your personal cell number with MoAr InSpO at 2am. Once you establish these expectations, redirect clients who try to use any other form of communication. If they send you a Facebook message, ask them to copy it to your email address. If they leave a voicemail full of revision requests, ask them to leave comments on the shared document, or whatever your preferred method is. (This is especially important when working with friends or family as it maintains a level of professional distance.)
Appointments and Availability
Be clear about your “work” hours, especially if you work outside the traditional 9 to 5 framework. Decide for yourself when you’ll make exceptions for scheduling calls or meetings outside your work hours, though I honestly wouldn’t publicize this and just use as needed. If you use an appointment scheduler like Calendly, mention that in your freelance contract and, again, redirect clients to that if they forget. Some freelancers and creative professionals do not want unscheduled phone calls interrupting their day, so they charge $150-$200/hour, which tends to cut down significantly on “brain picking” sessions. You may also consider whether you need to charge a late fee for missed, late, or unprepared meetings if that is a significant part of your biz.
Project delays can be very costly in terms of missed opportunities to seek other paid work. (And in my case, child care that I paid for based on my anticipated workload.) Now I use my contract to enforce project deadlines by including a pause clause. If a client misses one of their deadlines by a certain number of days without communicating about a plan to get back on track, I put their project on pause. Because I gave up the opportunity to work with other clients when I accepted their project, I charge a rescheduling fee of $2,000 to cover some of the time and money I will lose waiting for them to get back on track.
Fortunately, I haven’t had to use the pause clause since adding it to my freelance contract, but I have noticed that my clients have gotten a lot more responsive and communicative! (I also haven’t had anyone complain about the pause clause.) Of course this also means that I have to be on top of my deadlines. It’s only fair.
You should have outlined specific payment amounts and due dates in the scope of work, so the terms of service part of your freelance contract should contain general policies for due dates, late fees, and refunds. With the exception of writing for publications, I have always asked for payment up front and tied payments to specific milestones rather than charging an arbitrary percentage as a deposit. I do this because when clients hire me, they are essentially paying me not to work on anything else or pursue other projects, and I have to know that’s not going to be a financial risk. My work on a particular milestone doesn’t begin until I receive payment for that milestone.
This system also means that I’ve never had to refund anyone’s money. (Except the one time a client wasn’t transparent about wanting me to…violate GDPR regulations. HARD NOPE.) If a project or client relationship isn’t working out, I can always complete the work they’ve already paid for, hand it to them, and let them do what they wish with it. Different industries have different common practices, but you should pick the terms that work best for your life and business.
If you are creating a product for your client, you will need to think about how you want your work to be used. Can the client claim the work as their own, as in ghostwriting? Can the client resell your work, as in prints of a photo you took or copies of a book you laid out? Does the client have exclusive rights to a piece or can you sell it to someone else? How long and in what channels or locations can your work be displayed, printed, or otherwise used? Can the client edit your work after you finish the project? All of these questions should be covered in your contract. You also want to make sure you can use the work in your portfolio or marketing. If the client really wants to keep the content of the project confidential, make sure they agree to provide a detailed testimonial.
In most freelancing and professional service relationships, you will be an independent contractor rather than an employee. Your freelance contract should clearly indicate your status and rights as such.
Terms of Contract
The terms of contract (not a legal term) describe the conditions surrounding the contract itself. This covers if or how you or the client can change, transfer, or terminate the contract, how you’ll settle disagreements regarding the contract, who’s liable for losses caused by the work, and other issues. This is generally the part with the most “legalese” that people tend to skip over reading, but make sure you consult a legal professional to ensure your contract offers sufficient protection.
Contracts mean confidence.
In my experience, freelancers and creative professionals avoid contracts for several, often overlapping reasons:
- They don’t want to spend money to hire a lawyer to draw up or review a contract because…
- They aren’t sure they’re going to be doing this kind of work in the long term because…
- They’re not confident enough in their product or service to put it in writing.
Now, no document is going to magically bring clients and money to your door. (You can always try hanging prosperity banners though!)But investing in a solid, legally vetted freelance contract is a clear statement to yourself and the world that you mean business. And that assurance will definitely rub off on clients. Click To Tweet
I’ve never had any client quibble or balk at the terms of payment, scheduling, communication, etc. in my contract because it’s written in clear, unambiguous language. And I present my terms with confidence, not to be mean or feed my ego, but because I know this is how I deliver the best results.
Legal Resources for Freelancers and Creative Professionals
I hope this post gives you a framework with which to think about your freelance or creative business. A legit freelance contract will solidify that framework for you and your clients. Here are some resources for getting it all in writing:
- The Law Firm of Maritza S. Nelson, LLC: the Columbus, OH-based small business and employment law firm that wrote my contract. Her email newsletter has relevant tips and she also hosts webinars on small biz topics. (WOC-owned firm)
- The Law Office of Autumn Witt Boyd, PLLC: a Chattanooga, TN-based law firm specializing in legal protection for online businesses. You can also purchase lawyer-produced customizable contract templates. (woman-owned firm)
- Sam Vander Wielen LLC: a licensed but non-practicing attorney who provides legal templates and training for online businesses, particularly coaches and consultants with 1-to-1 or group programs (woman-owned business)