The Way We Work
December 28, 2009 by Tamara Rice

ShockedWhen the word "contract" comes up, some freelancers cringe. After all, signing something that legally ties you to a client can seem counter-intuitive to the freedom implied in freelance. But the truth is, you are a contracted worker, whether the contract is an informal phone conversation, an e-mail exchange, or a formal written document. Don't let the fact that there is a piece of paper involved in signing contracts scare you off!

There are times when a formal contract with a client is not only necessary, it's in a freelancer's best interest. It spells out the buyer's expectations. It provides guarantees. So, the next time a buyer mentions the word "contract," don't let it intimidate you. Just follow these 10 simple rules before you engage in negotiations:

  1. Know what you are worth. Take into account your experience, your schooling, your level of expertise, and compare them with others in your field. Be realistic, but don't sell yourself short when figuring out how much money you deserve.
  2. Study up on the client. If your buyer is an individual, this may be difficult. However, use the resources at your disposal (hello, Internet!)  to learn what you can about the company you are negotiating with or the industry it's in. Is it well-established? Is it tanking? Is it reputable? Is it expected to turn a massive profit this year?
  3. Read and listen carefully during negotiations.Take notes during phone calls, print out the e-mails, keep the voicemails, and go over everything twice--whenever possible--before responding. It's easy to hear what you want to hear during negotiations, but it's important to figure out what the other side is actually saying. Assume nothing!
  4. Think about more than money. While the dollar signs may catch your eye, there's more to worry about. Pay attention to deadlines, payment schedules, work volume, time obligations--it's all important and can help you properly assess the situation.
  5. Consider expenses you might incur.If something has to be sent overnight shipping, who will pay? If you have to conference call with someone on the other side of the world once a week, who is dialing? Think through the job and the expenses that may come up. Determine now who will pay (and if there will be limits on expenses.)
  6. Meet them more than halfway. Figure out what the other side needs from you and determine if there is any service you can give them for free. (Hint: Use #5 for ideas.) This can be difficult, but finding a small way to sweeten the deal is in your favor and will make you look good (just don't overdo this one!)
  7. Find your "out." Be sure the contract contains a way for you to walk away under certain circumstances--i.e., the company's failure to compensate you in a timely manner.
  8. Protect yourself. Be sure there is nothing in the contract that would hold you financially obligated to the company should an emergency arise that prohibits you from finishing the project--we're talking real emergency, like breaking both arms. Never sign anything that would require you to pay a dime if you can't deliver.
  9. Stay desirable. It's not in your best interest to start acting like a diva once you know they want you. Be sincere, be honest, be amiable. If they like you, they are more likely to give you what you want. Being arrogant can cost you the job.
  10. Sleep on it. You wouldn't sign anything without reading it (twice, we hope!), and you shouldn't sign anything of this nature without giving yourself time to process it mentally. Waiting at least a day before signing does two things: 1) you won't look too eager and desperate to the client, and 2) you will be confident, not hurried, when you sign.

freelance contractRemember, this is not a win-lose situation, but rather it should be win-win. Having the client's expectations--and your compensation--in writing is a good thing. Now ... just don't lose your copy!

Here are some other thoughts on contracts:

Tamara Rice

Freelance Writer and Editor

Tamara Rice is one of several freelance writers on the oDesk Blog team. She joined the oDesk marketplace in 2009, after more than six years on staff at an award-winning national magazine.