Shake Logo

“You Don’t Always Have to Say Yes” — Legal Tips for Freelancers

by Vinay Jain “You Don’t Always Have to Say Yes” — Legal Tips for Freelancers

Katie Lane is an attorney with a passion for helping creative people with their legal and business issues. Her website, Work Made for Hire, is full of excellent advice for freelancers and small businesses. We recently caught up with Katie and asked her to share some of her tips. Here’s Part 1 of our interview with her.

What are the legal issues that come up most often in your work with creative freelancers?

I see a lot of situations where you’re working with a friend or a previous collaborator, and you’re really excited about doing something new together, so you just start doing it. And then it becomes either popular or profitable for one or both of you. And you don’t know how to manage it or what to do next.

I hear all the time from artists, “I did a job for this guy, it’s a work for hire, but we don’t have anything in writing.” And I usually stop them there and say, “Nope, if you don’t have anything in writing, it’s not a work for hire.”

I’ve also seen a lot of situations where the artist is asked to create art with no clear indication of who is going to own it. I hear all the time from artists, “I did a job for this guy, it’s a work for hire, but we don’t have anything in writing.” And I usually stop them there and say, “Nope, if you don’t have anything in writing, it’s not a work for hire. You have to rethink this. If that’s what you want it to be, you have to go back and fix it.”  But honestly I can’t imagine hiring someone to do work, wanting to own it, and not put anything in writing. I don’t think people realize how risky that is.

And then the other thing I see is just not having clear boundaries about what the work is. A lot of people who are hiring designers or illustrators, this is probably the only or the first time that they’ve ever done that. They don’t have a clear idea of what that process is like, what’s reasonable and not reasonable.

How can having a written contract help?

The contract can be a really great communication tool to the client — to say hey, this is what you should expect. This is what you’re getting and you’re not getting more than this. You’re not getting 942 revisions; you’re not getting additional assets without paying for them. I see this a lot – freelancers who don’t use contracts don’t know how to communicate to their clients what is involved in a job, and yet they feel really frustrated when the client later demands more.

If you’re working for yourself, you know more about your process than your client does. You just do. And your process is likely somewhat unique to how you like to work. So the more you can serve that role as the expert for the client, the more confident the client is going to be in your work and the more they’re going to trust you when you make recommendations.

But at the same time, I tell the freelancer, at what point was the client supposed to realize this is what expectations were? And they say, “Well, because this is standard, it’s normal for the industry.” And I say, “If this is the first time the client is hiring an someone like you, how are they supposed to know that?” And that’s usually when people realize, “Oh! I thought I was being really clear. But in fact, I was making assumptions about what the other person knew.”

It seems like if you’re a freelancer you can actually make your client’s life easier by offering a contract.

Absolutely. It reduces stress for the client. They don’t have to either pay a lawyer to come up with something that they’re not entirely clear about, or hope and pray that it just works out.

Also, freelancers are experts at what they do. That’s why they’re doing it, right? It’s not because they couldn’t figure out anything else to do. If you’re working for yourself, you know more about your process than your client does. You just do. And your process is likely somewhat unique to how you like to work. So the more you can serve that role as the expert for the client, the more confident the client is going to be in your work and the more they’re going to trust you when you make recommendations. And yes, if you can start off with a contract that lays out expectations and helps the client understand what they’re doing, then you’re helping them.

So how did you get started as a lawyer who specializes in working with creatives?

I ended up doing what I do for two reasons. One, when I was in high school, I worked at a nonprofit theater in Columbia, South Carolina. It was a group of very talented, very committed individuals who put on some interesting plays. But working with them, I got to see up close how difficult is to make an artistic business work. It’s one thing to put on a production, it’s another thing entirely to create a sustainable business.

I would go out with friends who were freelancers and artists and they would talk about clients deciding that they weren’t going to pay the full amount, or how they wanted five more changes to a job that was supposed to have ended a month ago, or that they were demanding more work but hadn’t paid for anything in three months. And I kept telling my friends, you don’t always have to say yes.

And these people didn’t always have access to helpful information and advice. Sometimes it took a lot longer for them to find the answers that made sense to them and for what they were doing. And from my perspective, that was in part because the people advising them weren’t thinking the way that they were. They didn’t understand the artist’s perspective.

So that was one reason I decided to do this –- I saw there was an unmet need for legal advice delivered from somebody who understood the creative’s point of view.

The other reason was that I went to a lot of dinners where I got really frustrated. I would go out with friends who were freelancers and artists and they would talk about clients deciding that they weren’t going to pay the full amount, or how they wanted five more changes to a job that was supposed to have ended a month ago, or that they were demanding more work but hadn’t paid for anything in three months. And I kept telling my friends, you don’t always have to say yes. You can say no, you can assert yourself in various ways.

Finally, after repeating myself a number of times I started writing the blog, because it was easier to point people to a post or a website than to respond separately each time.

***

In Part 2 of our interview with Katie, we talk about her tips for structuring client relationships and working with lawyers.

photo of Vinay Jain
Vinay Jain

As Chief Legal Officer, Vinay serves as Shake's general counsel, is responsible for the company's legal contracts and content, and leads efforts to educate consumers and small businesses about the law.

Read more posts by Vinay