Why Every Creative Freelancer Needs To Use Strong, Clear Client Contracts

You may think you don't need contracts because you're "just freelancing" but freelancing is running a small business and businesses need contracts.

Woman reading a contract

Contracts protect you, your freelance business, your revenue (and profit margins), your time, and your sanity. They also protect your clients.

Designers and developers often joke that bad clients make great contracts but often forget that many clients have bad experiences too. For them, it only takes one bad designer or one bad developer to make them skeptical of every other designer and developer.

As someone who has dealt with and overcome that skepticism repeatedly when speaking with hesitant clients and prospects who have been burned, I beg you to use a solid client contract and stop using “my clients feel intimidated by a contract” as an excuse.

You Don’t Need A Freelance Contract Until You Do

I’ve often heard other designers, developers, and creative freelancers say that the best contracts are those based on real client experiences.

When I was younger, newer, and less experienced, I didn’t take those comments seriously. “I’ve got great clients,” I thought. “I don’t need a scary contract. I’ve never had any issues with my clients. My clients are awesome.”

And yeah, all my freelance clients were awesome until the first one that made outrageous demands, the first one that ridiculously expected me to work for free, and the first one that spoke to me in a manner no one should be spoken to in.

At the time, I just used a one-page estimate that outlined the scope of work and the fee — and it worked great. It didn’t dawn on me that:

  • Maybe I didn’t need a contract because I personally knew every client I had worked with before working with them. They were either friends, previous coworkers, or members of the local networking groups I was a part of.
  • Maybe I didn’t need a big contract because I wasn’t doing big jobs. As a new freelancer, I was working with a lot of clients on a lot of small, quick turn-and-burn projects.
  • Maybe up until that point, I had been very lucky to have not run into a problem client.

As my business grew, I started working with bigger clients, landing bigger projects, and working with much larger budgets — and the bigger everything gets, the more there is at stake.

I only had to experience one tough situation where I pretty much ended up paying the client to let me do the work, to figure out I needed a much better, more comprehensive freelance contract. And from that point on, any time I encountered a challenging client situation, I updated and refined my contract language.

Bottom line: The longer you are in business, the longer your contracts get. More the more experience you have the more you understand how important having a contract in place is for you and your clients.

Using A Freelance Contract

Most of my business coaching clients are brand designers, graphic designers, web designers, and web developers. They are some of the most generous people you will ever meet. They are willing to do just about anything in the name of good design and well-written code if the client is awesome and the project is interesting. The problem is that because they truly believe every client will be amazing, they’re also often lazy about investing in and using a contract.

The thing is, perfectly educated clients are rarely a reality because they don’t do what you do for a living. Most clients have no idea what really goes into designing a logo, building a brand, or creating a website.

You’re the expert and they trust you to lead them, educate them, and make the process easy for them. If they encounter confusion or misunderstandings, especially about what they will receive for their investment, they will see it as your fault. The client may get frustrated and confront you, and with nothing in writing to reference, finding a positive resolution everyone is happy with will be extra difficult.

Bad Situations Lead To Good Contracts

If every engagement went smoothly, designers and developers wouldn’t have client horror stories and clients wouldn’t have horror stories about their previous designers and developers. While there are some bad apples, I truly believe that clients aren’t bad — it’s the positions clients get into and the lack of knowledge clients have that create bad situations.

Eventually, you will experience and have to deal with a client conflict:

  • Clients will make assumptions about or misunderstand aspects of the process, timeline, scope of work, or payment schedule.
  • Clients will have unclear expectations and boundaries and show a lack of respect for your time.
  • Clients will make requests that are beyond the scope of work and continually ask for more, and it will feel like the project is getting out of control or as if the client is trying to take advantage of you.
  • Clients will fail to own their roles and responsibilities, and they will miss deadlines, fail to provide the assets you need, and even disappear mid-project.

All of these situations stem from a lack of clear engagement terms and clear communication upfront, and all of them can be mitigated with a clear, well-written contract and proactively using that contract as a positive reference tool.

Be Proactive About Using Your Freelance Contracts

Don’t make the mistake many freelancers make and rely on a contract that clients look at one time, sign, and forget about because chances are high that they only briefly scanned the terms and conditions and didn’t pay attention to the details. If the contract is only ever mentioned again when there is a problem, it can put the client in a defensive position very quickly.

Instead, create a contract that is meant to be used as a positive education and reference tool. Make it a resource that reminds clients of important information and clarifies their experience.

  • It’s your job to ensure clients understand the importance of your freelance contract and the role it plays.
  • It’s your job to review key aspects of the contract with them to ensure everyone involved in the project is on the same page.
  • It’s your job to set clear expectations based on the terms and scope of the contract.

Make your contracts a core part of your freelance service delivery process and client experience. Refer back to them strategically throughout your client engagements so your contracts become a guiding brief for the entire project.

  • Use your contract to set clear expectations and boundaries so they don’t email you on Friday night and get upset when you don’t respond on Saturday morning, even though they see you online through social media.
  • Use it to remind clients where you are at in the process. When design is approved and you move a website into the development phase, revisit the contract and use it to walk clients through what will happen next and what they can expect.
  • Use the contract to educate clients. By documenting your process in your contract, you can use it to explain how specific aspects of the project or client experience will work — like how the design revision process works.
  • Use it to gently remind clients of the original scope of work. It’s okay to refer back to the original contract scope of work and say something like, “Sure! We’re happy to do XYZ. It wasn’t part of our original agreement, so why don’t we jump on the phone to discuss how this impacts the project.”

How Contracts Support Your Freelance Business

As the freelance expert your clients are hiring, you need contracts to:

  • Set clear expectations and boundaries.
  • Outline final deliverables and a clear scope of work.
  • Communicate what is and is not included.
  • Share the process the client will experience.
  • Mitigate the common “what if this happens” scenarios.
  • Cover what happens when your engagement is over.
  • Educate the client about the project, process, and technical details.
  • Create a helpful reference document to refer to later.
  • Protect you and your company.
  • Set a legal precedent in case anything does go south.
  • Set the stage for a successful relationship.

As the one risking their budget dollars and goals to hire you, clients need contracts to:

  • Understand expectations, boundaries, and how things work.
  • Receive a clear scope of work and outline of deliverables, so they know exactly what they will receive for their investment.
  • Create accountability between them and their service provider, so the project gets done right, done on time, and done within the budget.
  • Understand the roles each person will have in the project, who is responsible for what, and what they must do and provide you.
  • Review the ownership policies of the end product.
  • See the process they will experience while working with you.
  • Ensure they are hiring a professional who takes their investment, goals, brand, and business seriously.

What Goes In A Freelance Contract

Again, when I started freelancing, I only used a simple one-page estimate. Today, my client contracts are much larger. With each sticky client situation I experienced, I amended my contract template, adding more detail to the terms and conditions to ensure I was never put in those same situations without a way out or through ever again.

I’ve written about the terms and conditions to include in a freelance contracts before — things like dormancy and cancellation, ownership and copyright, availability, revisions, warranty, and more. But there are also legal terms and payment terms, and things like:

  • A statement of the project objectives.
  • An introduction to who I am and my experience.
  • A description of the process and the client experience.
  • A clear scope of work that outlines what is included and what is not included.
  • Answers to frequently asked questions.
  • The change order process for requesting revisions and making changes or additions to the original scope of work.

Every part of your contract helps establish a solid baseline for your client relationships that is based on trust, respect, and mutual understanding.

Firm, Fair, And Friendly

In my freelance coaching groups and business training programs, I use the phrase firm, fair, and friendly all the time because it is how I approach every client interaction, all of my client communications, and my client contracts.

  • I am firm with the agreed-upon scope of work, deliverables, boundaries, and terms. I use a professional contract and take what I do and the promises I make to clients very seriously.
  • I am fair with my pricing, process, and requirements. I want to nurture great client relationships, do work I am proud of, and be paid a fair fee equal to the quality and impact of my work and my client experience.
  • I am friendly with how I communicate. I use clear, simple, easy-to-understand language and skip the scary, threatening legalese. I want to enjoy working with my clients and I want them to feel comfortable working with me and speaking with me about anything.

If you use a firm, fair and friendly approach when creating the contracts for your freelance business, and you use your contracts throughout projects as a positive reference tool, you’ll set a strong foundation for long-term success and happy clients.

And when tough situations do arise, you’ll be able to speak to the terms of your contract in a friendly, non-threatening way, and avoid dealing with defensive clients determined to get their way — and that’s a win for everyone!