Why you should always have a contract – even for small jobs

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As creative freelancers and business owners, we all know written contracts are useful – no, necessary – when dealing with customers. After all, we’ve all been reading Graphic Design Blender, haven’t we?

Whether it’s a $2,000 logo or a $20,000 web site, investing time and money on a service agreement is, as we’ve seen before, completely worthwhile.

Why?

  • It gives both parties an idea of how the relationship will be framed.
  • It protects you in case the relationship breaks down.
  • It’s what distinguishes amateurs from professionals. You’re on the right side of that fence, aren’t you?

Say you just received an email from a prospective client in need of business cards. Fantastic! You’re all set and ready to send them a contract…when you realize it will take just as much time as doing the actual work. Cue the crisis: should you work without a contract? Should you draft one up anyway? It’s a tricky situation, and one Millo’s looked at before.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

Contracts are good for you. Their benefits don’t disappear when you’re working a small job, but are they important enough for you to invest time and money in getting them done?

To figure out how to deal with these projects, I sought the opinion of a contract lawyer to help us sort this all out.

Well, what are our options?

No contract

There’s an upside to diving right in:

  • you save yourself tons of trouble, and
  • you get to work very quickly without having to wait for the client’s sign-off.
  • It might be crucial to landing short deadline jobs.

However, it’s a very risky proposition. You get none of the benefits a contract provides, and if the relationship goes awry, you’re stuck.

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My friend Martin Brunet, a contract lawyer, doesn’t recommend going this route:

If the relationship goes sour, the rule of the fittest applies – that means whoever holds the money at that point is likely to control the situation and come up on top. If you don’t have a contract, chances are you didn’t get money up front, and you’re not likely to get it – ever.

Small stock contract

If you’re not willing to take a risk, it’s possible to get yourself a short, generic contract that you can fire it off to the client in 15 minutes with minimal editing necessary. This will give you “good enough” protection without spending hours revising contracts for a job that’ll only take you two hours.

The downside?

You don’t get the full, custom protection a specific contract offers. Such a contract doesn’t consider the particularities of the relationship and of the job at hand.

It can also become a bit costly if you offer many different services; a blanket contract can be a hard feat to pull off based on different deliverables, different file formats and different copyright issues. This means you’ll probably need a few contracts, raising the cost of this approach.

Full contract

Finally, we’ve got the option of going full scale, as with any other regular job.

There’s no ambiguity here:

  • You’re backed.
  • You look professional.
  • You’re giving everyone the special treatment.
  • For further business, it makes you look responsible and strong.

But…up to what price point is that viable? Let’s face it: it’s expensive. Is it worth spending your entire paycheck making sure you get paid?

It can also make you come out looking too strong – as Martin says:

Sometimes it might make you look kinda anal always referring back to the contract. Your customer is still seeking an experience and lawyering him might not be the best for the relationship.

My pick?

Get yourself a small stock contract. (There are drawbacks to all of these solutions, and if it were an easy call, well, we wouldn’t be writing about it.)

It’s not because the job is small that you don’t need to agree on the specs with the client. You need protection just as much. A clean, simple contract, less formal than an ordinary contract, gives you both flexibility and protection, and it’s why Martin and I agree that it’s the way to go.

There are dangers to copy/pasting contracts, which means we have to be careful doing so, but the simpler and more generic your contract is, the easier it is to edit and to get yourself protected.

Write one up, and you’ll be ready for any eventuality – it’s worth investing the time to do it once.

What if it’s a rush job and you don’t have time for a contractual back-and-forth?

You shouldn’t forego the advantages of a written agreement just because it’s a small rush job. However, sometimes the project was due 2 weeks ago and you really don’t have time to send contracts around.

Fortunately, even if you don’t have time for the regular contract sign-off procedure, there is a valid course of action.

The important thing for your legal protection is to be able to show that the client has agreed to the terms, and an email agreement is usually enough. If you can demonstrate that, you’re all set.

If your client can’t even commit to that, you couldn’t ask for a bigger red flag.

How do you deal with these issues?

What approach have you been using for these jobs, and how did that work for you? That’s what the comments section’s for, so let us know!

 

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About Jean Gagnier

Jean Gagnier practices graphic and web design in both English and French at Ampère Design, which he runs out of Montréal, Quebec, Canada.

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Comments

  1. I agree with you 100% about the importance of a contract for any size job. I’ve been saying and writing the same thing for the 15 years I’ve been a freelancer! I don’t mean to advertise, but in case it’s useful to someone, I sell an excellent standard web development contract I developed myself here.

  2. But contract scares off my customers, not every clients are fond of it.

  3. For small, rush jobs, I don’t bother with a contract. However, I make sure to get paid before I send off any art files! You might think that your customer is a nice person, easy to deal with so I’ll go ahead and send them their files but, let me tell you, the nice ones are usually the hardest to collect from! Don’t be afraid to ask. I’m honest and up-front with my customers and I actually tell them that I require payment before releasing files because I’ve been burnt too may times.

  4. I’d love to see more articles about this topic. What about the validity of electronic signatures in contracts? Could one use a Gravity Forms “contract” with IP documented, their name, phone, e-mail, e-signature? Could that work? What about templates or a one-size-fits-all web developer contract? There should be a generalized version that would set the menu for most developers where they could fill in hourly rate, schedule, names, etc. But a great article about a vital topic.

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