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Unless you're a nineteenth century representative of the American government chatting with the Sioux, contracts are unbreakable without consequences.

Freelancer, Protect Thyself: The Importance of a Fair Contract

I can’t even believe this needs to be said, but… you deserve to be paid.

You deserve to be paid in a timely fashion, without a fight, and without jumping through flaming hoops over shark-infested waters. You deserve to be paid what you’re worth, for every billable minute, and neither you nor the people paying you should devalue your work or your worth in any way.


Recently a friend posted on social media about the trouble she was having getting paid for a job. She does freelance photography, and had almost given up hope of ever being paid for a corporate job she’d done months before. To paraphrase:

“They said they have to use a corporate credit card. I sent them a PayPal invoice and they said they can’t use PayPal for security reasons. I have a square reader, and they said that would work, but the problem is I work all day now and can’t get to them during business hours. For some reason Venmo won’t work either.”

Friends? When I read that I just about lost my gotdayum mind. The unfairness of this situation is infuriating—all the more so because it’s also so common. Let’s unpack this.

Fighting for payment is work

You just did a job. You expect to get paid in a timely fashion by the client or your employer or whoever you just gave your precious and finite time to in exchange for remuneration.

Only they don’t pay you… yet. They make you sit around waiting for your dough because [insert boring ass, uncreative excuses here]. So you start pestering them for the money you’re owed, hesitantly, politely, forgivingly at first, and then with increasing frustration.

You spend more of your precious and finite time nagging the client to pay you for the time you’ve already spent working for them. And in so doing, you permanently lose the opportunity to spend that time working for another client, making still more money for yourself.

In other words, if the client is going to make you keep working for your money, then by the power of Grayskull, you should get paid for that work.

Every hour you spend trying to squeeze blood from that late-bill-paying stone should be a billable hour. I guarantee you’ll get paid a whole lot faster the second you start sending updated invoices with “late fee” as a line item.

You shouldn’t be at the mercy of the client’s whims

In these here United States, coin of the realm comes in many legitimate forms. So long as they clear the bank without a fee on your part, all of them should be fucking acceptable.

For a client to hold your money hostage with “Sorry! We’re only allowed to pay you in the national currency of Tuvalu via Western Union, and you’re going to have to accept payment in person during a traditional Mongolian transaction ceremony,” is entirely unacceptable.

It’s unfair.

Imagine how dismayed and panicked such a client would be if you said “Ok, I’ve finished the project. As soon as you pay me, I’ll deliver it to you.” Which is exactly what my girl should’ve done, given what she now knows about their shitty attitude toward paying vendors.

My friend now has a full-time job. She can’t take time off to travel to her former client’s corporate office to swipe a credit card! She shouldn’t have to crowd-source solutions on social media when it’s her client who has the problem of not being able to pay her.

I haven’t even told you the most depressing thing about her situation. All her friends chimed in with helpful tricks and solutions to help her get her money. It was as if her fellow freelancers had all been through this bullshit before… many times.

You need a fucking contract

If only there were some convenient, legally binding way of protecting yourself from shitty clients and employers!

Oh right. There totally is.

Behold the ancient and mighty weapon of mid-level bureaucrats and lawyers the world over since time immemorial! The contract.

Unless you’re a nineteenth century representative of the American government chatting with the Sioux, a contract is unbreakable without consequences. It’s where both parties can lay out what needs to happen in order for the work to get done and payment to be made.

I moonlight (and weekendlight) as a freelance editor. And you can be damn sure I have me a boilerplate contract authors are required to sign before I undangle a single fucking participle.

My contract has gotten longer over time as I hear of various clients screwing over freelancers, either through malice or sheer ineptitude. But here are the basic components:

  • The date. It just doesn’t look official if it doesn’t have a date.
  • Services rendered. I’m a full-service editor, so this specifies exactly what level of editing I’m doing for them. This way they can’t turn around and say “But you didn’t do X!” when X was not a service we agreed upon.
  • The cost. I charge by the word, so it’s real easy to give an exact cost up-front. But depending on the nature of the work, some freelancers might only include an estimate and follow up with a final invoice later.
  • I don’t start work until a 50% deposit has been made. This assures me that the client is good for their money, and the client that I now have collateral at play.
  • Due date of work.
  • Due date of final payment. I’m nice, so this is within two weeks of receipt of the final manuscript. But a lot of freelancers I know withhold final files until final payment has been received, which is safest.
  • Method of payment. For me, that’s PayPal, Venmo, personal check, or “any other legal method upon consultation with the vendor.” I have a fair amount of clients in Latin America who need to pay via international wire transfer, which is complicated to set up, so I want fair warning if that’s how they’ll pay.
  • Late fee. You’re goddamn right I charge a late fee. Hunting down my money is WORK (see above).
  • Disclaimers. For me, it’s just “Editorial services do not guarantee book sales.” This is just a way to cover your ass with disappointed clients who started with unreasonable expectations.
  • Good customer service. This is your basic “30-day money-back guarantee,” tailored to your specific needs. In my boilerplate, I promise “to correct any errors introduced by the editor free of charge.”

Enforcing a contract

Lawyers are expensive. And while I am in the very privileged position of being related to one through marriage (my husband’s uncle), I realize that’s not an option for everyone. But to enforce your contract, under extreme circumstances you might need to lawyer up.

If a client is violating the terms of your contract, you have every right to take legal action. And again, while suing someone is extremely expensive, it likely won’t come to that. A simple “Yo dude, pay up” letter from a lawyer is usually enough to get the fucker to pay. My husband’s uncle wrote me a boilerplate on his letterhead, and if I ever need to use it all I have to do is fill in the relevant details and send him a PDF to sign.

Sending your giant, intimidating friend to deliver a menacing warning whilst wielding Lucile probably works too, though I’ve never had to try it.

But the point of a contract is that it’s legally binding. So if you can’t… legally bind… your client to that contract, it’s worthless. Whether the bonds are your lawyer uncle-in-law, your friend Andre the Giant, or your ability to hold the work hostage until payment is received, you need that threat to be real.

You deserve every last red cent your time is worth. So contract up and protect yourself before you waste another minute chasing clients for what you’re owed.

4 thoughts to “Freelancer, Protect Thyself: The Importance of a Fair Contract”

  1. This may not be an option, depending on your location, but some law schools have transactional law clinics as part of their clinical programs. Which means free or low fee services provided by third year law students (supervised by real grown-up lawyers), including drafting and negotiating contracts, copyright, and other related business advice. Some, like Harvard Law, even have specific projects and staff for entertainment law issues (artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc)!

  2. “A simple “Yo dude, pay up” letter from a lawyer is usually enough to get the fucker to pay. My husband’s uncle wrote me a boilerplate on his letterhead, and if I ever need to use it all I have to do is fill in the relevant details and send him a PDF to sign.” Genius!

    If the freelancer in question also has a day job, maybe signing up for a group legal plan through work would be sufficient?

  3. I work in procurement and, over the years, I have grown to appreciate the beauty of what it represents: planning. It’s the physical manifestation of both sides thinking about their goals, expectations, and positions…which of course don’t always line up. But that’s why you negotiate, come to a verbal agreement, and then just put that agreement down on paper. It’s kind of an awesome thing that our society has created.

    And by virtue of being very clear about all the items in the contract, magically both parties are much, much more likely to adhere to it.

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