What to do when your client breaks a signed contract

We talk a lot about contracts here at Millo (see bottom of this post for a list of resources for working with contracts as a designer).

But one thing we don’t talk about very often is what to do when/if your client breaks his terms of the deal.

Since most designers (myself included) don’t get super-jazzed up when it comes to legal-speak, I’d like to try to break it down into right-brained language today.

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PS: I’m no lawyer. I will never be one. And if you’re really in a pickle with a client, you should seek out professional legal help. If I’ve left something important out of the advice below, please leave a comment and let me know.

What’s in your contract?

The most important part of using contracts as a freelancer is to actually know what’s in your contract.

I know it sounds crazy, but I know a lot of creative professionals who drafted (or asked a legal friend to draft) a contract years ago and continue to cut and paste years later. Some of them don’t even know what’s in their own contract anymore!

I guess that’s better than not having a contract, but it’s still not ideal by any stretch of the imagination.

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Before you sign–or make anyone else sign–you should know what you’re agreeing too.

Give them some time

That means you may need to give your clients a little bit of time to review the contract.

So don’t take it over to their office one random afternoon and expect them to sign it immediately. Send it electronically. Let them pick through it. If they need to, let them negotiate.

Once you’ve both taken time to review the details of the contract, sign it and you’re on your way.

Hold up your end of the deal

The first step in making a contract relationship successful is to hold up your end of the bargain. If you come through on your commitment, you client should have no reason to disappoint you.

Unfortunately, though, from time to time some clients drop off the face of the earth, refuse to return your calls, or essentially “break up” with you right to your face.

So what should you do when a client fails to fulfill your contract in its entirety?

Here’s a few tips that have helped me:

1. Understand what it takes to “break” your contract.

Here’s a little piece of advice: just because you or your client don’t pull through on one small piece of your contract (ie: a delivery date), doesn’t void the entire contract.

At least it shouldn’t.

When drafting your contract you need a statement that essentially states that the violation or nullification of any portion of the contract does not nullify the contract as a whole.

In right brain language? Not pulling through on one point of the contract, doesn’t mean the whole thing gets flushed. The rest of the contract is still valid.

But you have to make sure your contract has that kind of clause in it. Often this concept is called severability.

Also, despite what you see on TV, I’ve heard that ripping up a contract doesn’t actually void the agreement.

2. Have a human conversation when any terms of your contract are violated.

Most clients don’t realize their in violation of contract when they’ve committed a mistake that goes against the terms of your agreement.

So, before getting angry and threatening to take anyone to court, have a human conversation with your client. Talk to them about the contract they signed. Teach them why they’re in violation of contract and offer solutions to fix the problem. Do everything you can to resolve the problem on your own. It’s cheaper and easier.

3. As a last resort, involve the law.

If there’s absolutely no possible way to solve the problem between the two of you on your own, it may be time to involve the law.

Before getting any legal services involved, make sure you’re right about your allegations. Meaning, make sure your client actually violated the terms you think they did.

You may also want to weigh the pros and cons of taking a client to court.

If they don’t actually owe you any money, don’t waste your time.

And if they only owe you a minimal amount of money, I would advise (again, not a lawyer) you do think hard about it. It could be a waste of time that won’t pay off in the end.

Remember, for every hour you spend in court or involved in the legal process, you forfeit an hour of productivity and work you would be doing for other clients.

The real lesson

The real lesson to be learned? Get involved with good clients. Here are 26 things you should know about your client before starting a project together. Once you make sure you really want to work together, make sure you get the contract signed.

Here are a few resources for contractual work:

Have something to add?

What did I leave out of this post that I should have included? Leave a comment and let’s talk!


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  1. If the clients breaks a contract and then asks for a letter saying your company will not go after them, is there such letter or should we not write anything at all

  2. Going through this now. Sucks. It had been awhile and I forgot that contracts can be almost meaningless if the client is not a _good client_ in the first place.

  3. I’m sure this may not be appreciated, but in the first sentence under point #2 in the ‘Hold Up Your End of the Deal’ section above, the fifth word “their” should be “they’re”. Sorry, being in this business makes me hyper-aware of typos.

  4. I always include a “Kill Fee” in my boiler plate contract language, equal to 80% of the total fee. If the client cancels the job for any reason (through no fault of mine), then the “Kill Fee” gives us both an out.
    The one time I actually needed this, I had not put it in the contract, so now I include it every time.

    The Graphic Artists Guild Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook is an excellent reference for understanding (and explaining to clients) the legal ins and out of our work together. Business and Legal Forms for Graphic Designers (Crawford and Bruck) provides excellent legal forms in editable formats.

    1. The kill fee sounds good, but what if the client refuses to pay that? doesn’t it default back to some of the articles points?

  5. This is one of those areas where a freelancer rarely if ever comes out ahead. While I have been lucky to never have to deal with this, I know many who have and they never win in the end. Unless it is a substantial sum of money, I would suggest just writing it off and moving on. As you said, you have to look at the opportunity lost of time and money by pursuing legal action.

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