What to do when your client is afraid of contracts

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I was recently working on landing a new client that I was excited to work with. Everything went great, they accepted my quote, they sent a great creative brief and it looked like everything was going to go smoothly.

When it came time to make it official I sent my normal working contract over to them to have a look at and make sure they agreed to my terms. It’s a short contract that covers the basics; deposit up front, kill fees and intellectual property transfer. I’ve tried to make it as fair as possible for both sides, so I was a little shocked when I got their reply.

“Call me, the CEO thinks you’re going to sue us.”

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I gave them a call and they explained they had been taken advantage of in the past, after signing unfair contracts. The CEO was dubious of any contract as a result.

This was a problem because as a rule, I don’t work without one. Somehow we would have to meet in the middle.

The fist step was explaining why I have a contract. It’s not to allow me to squeeze more money out of clients, or get them into a legally vulnerable position. It’s so that both sides of the arrangement know what they are expected to give, and what they will get out of the transaction. I want to make sure everything is clearly defined, so no one is disappointed.

A contract effectively is a list of things that each side of an arrangement can expect of each other, and what is required of each in the transaction.

Discovering the real problem

A lot of times people are afraid of contracts in contract form, but will easily agree to everything they contain. The best solution I can think of here is to make the contract less intimidating, without backing down on your terms.

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How I solved it

Rather than tell the client that I can’t work without a contract, I reworked it into something they could accept.

I offered to draft up a list of expectations and rules, in plain English, we could both agree too.

This will serve the exact same purpose as a contract, but perhaps without the stigma of the legal system ( and being sued ) attached. I’ll admit this isn’t as good as having a concrete lawyer drafted contract, but in this instance I was willing to accept the small personal risk rather than have no contract at all, or lose the client.

I reworded all of the contents of my contract into plain English and emailed it to them asking that they send a confirmation email if they agreed. They responded immediately with full acceptance.

The problem wasn’t the contact of the contract, but rather the format.

I’d love to hear if any of you have similar stories of clients afraid of contracts. and how you handled it!

Do you have a technique to take the intimidation out of contracts without leaving yourself unprotected? Let’s talk in the comments.

• • • •

If you’re like most freelancers and get stuck when it comes to contracts, our ebook bundle Contracts For Creatives can help! Inside the bundle, you’ll find a full ebook jumpstart guide that teaches you left-brained legal concepts in a way us right-brainers can digest easily. Plus, you’ll get three bonus items: contract templates to help you draft your own contracts quickly and easily, 5 extra legal essays (written for right-brainers too), and a legal glossary. You can learn more and take a peek inside the ebook bundle by clicking here.

Please note, Millo is not a legal agency. Our advice is based solely on our own opinions and experience; please consult with legal aid if you have questions.

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About Ben Brush

Ben Brush is a graphic designer working and living in Nova Scotia. You can view his work on his website. Find more posts by Ben on his graphic design blog Design Puffin or connect with him on twitter.

Leave a Comment



  1. Before I pass on a contract to a potential client, I assure them that the contract mostly aids in keeping organization (on my end especially) to make sure proper and accurate care is taken to give them the best and excellent service. By the time they hear and see that my thorough nature is benefitting them, they are usually very appreciative of the extra measures taken. It let’s them know that I really do care for their best interest too. It also doesn’t hurt for me to keep the verbiage simplified and transparent.

    BTW, I purchased Contracts for Creatives to construck the contracts I use. #PureAwesomeness!!!

  2. First, the headline to my contact is “design proposal”.
    Second I sign with a greeting says “with hope for a lovely create co-operation” (work better in my language) and sign with my first name only.
    Both things make it feel lighter.

  3. I use a contractual agreement with all of my clients — I learned to do that the hard way, as many of us did. It’s in the form of a letter, in plain English, and lays out expectations, deadlines, how we’ll work together explained clearly and concisely, estimated hours to completing the project, and a quit fee. It’s worked quite well so far. Problems with clients comprehending the process have contributed to my further clarifying and explaining the process, and added about half a page to the agreement, but every iteration of the contract was far better than having none. I have either met with the clients in person or via Skype, and had more than one telephone conversation before I send the agreement, so it’s not arriving in a vacuum and they’ve begun to develop trust in me and my processes. Going to take a look at your Contracts for Creatives!

  4. Keeping the connection with the client as clear as possible and building up trust is very important for any business.

    The contract should always be benefiting the client more than they expect to insure you are willing to give them full support and go that extra mile to deliver the perfect product, solution, etc.

    If the client can feel comfortable with the contract and in every stage of the project, you end up with a happy client and you increase your brands reputation in that Niche.

  5. Good article Ben,

    I’ve had people scared off by a contract too.

    Perhaps the word “Contract” isn’t very pleasant. Maybe we could call it a “Written Agreement” instead.

    My contract is clear, Outlines everything in plain English.

    Ben, I don’t suppose you could give us an example of how you did your draft, please?

  6. This is an interesting one, I’ve had a few people say to me ‘if they won’t accept your terms, they’re not worth having as a client’ and up until now I’ve thought perhaps they were right. Surely if a client is worth his/her salt they aren’t going to be afraid of a contract, and more than likely expect one? But perhaps Mus’s comment is right, that the word contract is a scary thing and the wording needs to be less legalize and more human? Definitely going to re-think how I outline my terms now. Great post.

    • Nicola,

      The blanket concept of ‘if they won’t accept your terms, they’re not worth having as a client’ is a little bit loose for me to agree with. Well, what are your terms? They might be ridiculous, and then I’d agree that they shouldn’t be accepted.

      I do agree that companies ought to expect a contract and be wary of contractors who DON’T use one.

      I’ve never had a client reject the idea of a contract, but I’ve had some be intimidated by them. I just explain that it’s how we agree on what the project outcome is supposed to be beforehand, and that I use it as a reference when working on the project.

      Thanks for sharing!


  7. Hey Ben…!!!

    The same happens with me and I did same as you did. But my way was wrong to implement it for my client.
    I really don’t know that what to do……. now I come to know what tricks should I use for my client. The above tips are really wonderful and informative and we all should implement it for our freelancer work.
    Thanks.. !!!

  8. I have a question (sorry if it sounds dumb) but how do you do contracts with overseas clients? I mean the signing part. It’s easy enough in person, but I’m stumped for international parties.

    Or is it a ‘verbal’ agreement by e-mail e.g. “Yup, looks good. I agree with the terms. Let’s roll.”?


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