Freelance contracts: Dos and don'ts to protect your work

How do you protect your work as a freelancer? The answer is freelance contracts. Here’s why you should have them for all your freelance projects.

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You need to protect yourself and your work with a formal contract — especially if you’re a freelancer.

At any company, employees sign a contract outlining the terms and conditions of their employment, usually including information like their job responsibilities, workplace policies, and compensation. 

While freelancers often aren’t full-time employees, they can ask clients to sign a freelance contract before starting a project together. These contracts clearly define expectations for both parties, establish trust and transparency, and serve as the foundation of a healthy working relationship.

Many freelancers and independent contractors may feel they don't need a contract for freelance work if they've never experienced troubles with clients in the past. Unfortunately, waiting until something goes wrong to create contracts leaves you susceptible to exploitative clients. Regardless of your prior experience as a self-employed worker, it's entirely possible to run into problems like:

  • Unpaid invoices or late payments
  • Scope creep (changes made to a project after it's begun that weren't initially agreed on)
  • Stolen freelance work
  • Missed deadlines

If you don't have contracts in place already — or don't know how to make a contract — we're here to walk you through the process.

What is a freelance contract, and why do you need one?

A freelance contract is a legal document outlining the terms and conditions of a project between a freelancer and the client — whether that’s a business or an individual — purchasing their services. 

As a freelancer, having a contract with your client protects both of you throughout the arrangement and offers several advantages. A freelance contract:

  • Is a legally binding contract that ties both parties to its terms
  • Ensures both parties — the freelancer and the client — know their responsibilities
  • Clarifies terms like payments, timelines, and deliverables
  • Reduces disputes or differences of opinion about terms
  • Safeguards your rights as a freelance worker
  • Protects you and your work from being stolen or manipulated

Starting any freelance project without a contract puts you at risk. They’re essential for legal protection, so ensure yours includes the correct information to keep all terms and conditions valid and enforceable.

Essential terms for your freelance contract

Each freelance contract is unique to its project, but they should all have a set of terms and clauses that clearly establish expectations for both parties. You may already have a go-to freelance contract template, but review this list of important conditions to see if you need to add any.

Here are eight essential terms to include in your contract.

1. Names and personal information

The first thing to add to any contract is your legal name and the client's legal name (or company name), along with personal information such as contact numbers, emails, and addresses. Legal names are those used on official documents like identification and tax forms.

Using legal names, work numbers, and professional email addresses shows that you and the client are conducting business professionally, not as individuals. Make sure you ask the client for their physical business address and not their residential address (unless they’re the same).

If you're offering services to an organization, identify the person who will be your point of contact for the project's duration. Having a primary contact helps both parties avoid confusion and streamlines workflow.

2. Project overview and scope

The project overview is one or two sentences and should include information on the freelancer, the services they're offering, and to whom they're offering the services. This introduces the project scope, a longer description of the details of the agreed-upon work.

A good project scope describes the exact working terms in a contract and specifies the freelancer's bandwidth. Be clear and thorough when writing a project scope to avoid scope creep and extra work. For example, a freelance web designer's contract may specify they'll build a website for the client but won't be responsible for finding a domain name and publishing the site. 

A project scope should include the following:

  • The project's start date
  • The project timeline
  • A detailed description of the services to be provided
  • The project's end date
  • Payment terms, including schedule (when the client pays) and rate (how much they pay)

3. Deliverables

Deliverables are the services offered to the client that must be completed and delivered at various stages throughout the project. The final outcome is likely also a deliverable. 

When making a contract, list each requested deliverable in detail, the expected date of delivery, and if you’ll send a draft to your client for them to review beforehand. Drafts are useful for clients to identify anything missed and make their expectations clear to prevent any miscommunications.

Deliverables set a clear precedent for what's expected during a project. You and the client could have completely different ideas of a "high-quality logo," and understanding the client's demands ensures you’ll spend less time revising and more time delivering quality results.

Let’s take an example of a web designer’s four-week project for a client. The designer's schedule might look like this:

  • Week 1: Choose typography 
  • Week 2: Select a color palette
  • Week 3: Curate images and videos
  • Week 4: Deliver final site 

If you’re a web designer and need a little help, check out our dedicated guide on contracts for web designers to learn what to keep in mind when writing a freelance contract.

4. Deadlines

Deadlines are essential for you and the client to create a timeline for both deliverables and the entire project. 

Determine the time needed for each task and add a few days to that as a safety net to give yourself breathing room. As an independent worker, you must prepare for unforeseen circumstances like illness, time off, and other temporary setbacks that could throw you off track.

You'll also need to account for revisions or edits. Include timeframes on how quickly the client must inform you if they want changes made and what happens if those requests come in outside of the agreed upon timeline. 

For example, if a client is two days late with their feedback, the overall project deadline should be extended by two days. Similarly, set provisions for what happens if you miss a deadline (which is why we recommend giving yourself a few days in the first place).

5. Intellectual property

Intellectual property rights are most relevant to freelancers who produce creative work, like writers, designers, or photographers. This section of the contract should include two essentials:

  • The client receives explicit rights to any material for which they pay.
  • The freelancer retains rights to any material they've created for which the client doesn’t pay.

To understand the second point better, think of it as a "license" instead of "rights." When you produce content — like an article, a design, or a photo — you grant someone a license to use it. In this case, they don’t automatically receive rights to use it for other purposes.

Let's say you're a ghostwriter for someone who wants to publish an autobiography. When the written work is complete, your client receives publishing rights. They can publish your writing as a book, but if you haven't given them the permission or "license" to convert it into an audiobook, they aren't legally allowed because of the intellectual property clause in the contract.

6. Payment terms

Not being paid quickly after finishing a project is frustrating, so include payment terms as part of your freelance agreement with the client. Consider the following things when including payment terms:

  • Will you charge an hourly or project-based rate?
  • Will you charge according to a minimum or maximum number of working hours?
  • What's the payment schedule? Will it be a week after submitting an invoice for the entire project, or will you be paid for each deliverable?
  • Will the client need to pay a deposit before you start the project?
  • Will your client be charged a late fee if they don't pay on time?
  • Will the client reimburse you for project expenses?
  • What are the payment methods? Will you be paid in cash, via wire transfer, or with PayPal?

Payment terms protect you if the client ends up being a no-show. Ideally, this doesn't happen, but you should be prepared just in case.

7. Termination clause

A termination clause provides an option to end the agreement if the relationship between the freelancer and the client isn't working. This section offers a way out where both parties can peacefully end the agreement.

Either side may realize shortcomings during the agreement, such as a failure to meet deadlines, a breakdown in communication, or disagreements about the final deliverables. 

Your freelance contract should explicitly state the circumstances under which services can be discontinued and kill fees. Kill fees specify that you'll be compensated for the work you've already produced for the length of the project.

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Dos and don’ts for your contracts

With those essential sections out of the way, it’s time to address the dos and don’ts for your freelance contracts.

Do: Include an NDA

NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, are legally binding agreements that create a confidential partnership and specify how much information you can disclose to people outside the agreement.

As a freelancer, you could be given access to client-related information that needs to be kept private and confidential, such as customer lists, company plans, financial data, and more. Your client may want you to stay quiet about such information, so consider adding a non-disclosure agreement.

Do: Get legal advice

A contract signed by two parties is a legally binding agreement and can be used as evidence in court if one party violates its terms and conditions. But many laws — like copyright for intellectual property — are complicated. To be sure all your clauses are valid, have a lawyer review your contract and offer advice on clauses to include. 

Don’t: Skip setting boundaries

You have a lot of flexibility as a freelancer, but you must take precautions to preserve this independence. Clients can negotiate deadlines with you but can't force you to be available at all times. You can set the following expectations:

  • Communication boundaries. Would you like clients to contact you by phone, text, or email? Is it easier if they add you to a Slack channel? Pick a preferred mode of communication and let your client know.
  • Working hour boundaries. Include off hours, weekends, and national holidays. Your client should know your working hours so they know when they can contact you — and when they shouldn’t.
  • Project-related boundaries. How long will it take you to make changes to the project? How many rounds of revisions are allowed? Will you charge extra for these revisions? Make turnaround times clear for feedback and revisions to avoid unwelcome requests during the agreement.

Don’t: Start without a percentage of upfront payments

Always ask for a portion of the payment before beginning a freelance project. This could be a small portion of the overall charge as a deposit or an amount covering premeditated expenses like equipment or travel.

If the project is going to take a few months — or if you’re working on a retainer model — make sure you have enough in the bank to eliminate cash flow issues midway.

Your work is important

Freelancing provides plenty of flexibility that traditional jobs simply don’t offer. But you must balance passion with profit and ensure clients don’t exploit you to reap the benefits.

Freelance contracts shouldn’t be intimidating documents. They exist to support and protect your work, making them worth the time investment.

At Webflow, we have a full library of articles, guides, and courses to help you understand the nuances of freelancing with other tips to help you in your freelance journey.

Our article on the best freelance platforms provides information on various websites that protect freelancers and make sure they’re paid for their work. Plus, you’re exposed to many clients looking for freelancers to hire, so you’ll know where to go when looking for work.

Published

November 16, 2022

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