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“Make the Client Part of the Process” — Freelancing Tips from a Lawyer

by Vinay Jain “Make the Client Part of the Process” — Freelancing Tips from a Lawyer Katie Lane. Illustration © Dylan Meconis 2014.

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. In Part 1 of our interview with Katie, we talked about common legal issues freelancers face. We continue our conversation here.

In light of all the advantages of having a written agreement, why do you think that people in general – and freelancers in particular – continue to work without contracts?

I’ve always been amazed at how many people worked without a contract because they thought a contract would either negatively impact their relationship or would be too complicated for them to understand and use. I’m a bit of nerd for contracts so I don’t have either of those concerns. But it’s been really interesting for me to learn about why people don’t use contracts.

When encouraging people to use contracts, I try to put things in their language and show them how they can use a contract, and how it doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can actually be a really useful tool for telling the other person, “I care about this relationship and I don’t want our work together to negatively impact that relationship.”

It’s interesting how the prospect of drafting a contract can open up a dialogue between a freelancer and a client.

Yes, and one thing a freelancer should do in that dialogue is to give the client options. In terms of pricing, three is usually a helpful number of options – the client can go for the bronze, the silver or the gold package. Contracts can follow a similar model. You can say, “Ok, if you want this extra thing, here are those terms and conditions, here’s how much it’s going to cost. Or if we get to the point where you actually want more than you thought you did at the very beginning, here’s how we can incorporate it so it doesn’t become a problem.” That way, we don’t get into an argument about how we’re going to do it. We already have the roadmap to follow in the contract.

I always encourage folks to sit down and literally write out: what are the things you love doing about your job, and what are the things you hope you don’t have to do, or only do on a limited basis? All of those things can be represented in a contract.

What do you recommend freelancers do when it comes time to actually draft a contract?

I always encourage folks to sit down and literally write out: what are the things you love doing about your job, and what are the things you hope you don’t have to do, or only do on a limited basis? All of those things can be represented in a contract. The contract should be a tool that allows you to do your very best work, and that limits you from having to do the things that you don’t want to do. So be really clear, for example, about the number of revisions involved, or how you are getting paid.

How do you feel about the freelancer insisting on a deposit from the client before starting work?

Deposits are great, but unless you put that in your contract and you’re really clear about when that deposit is due and the next installment, it’s difficult to use that tool effectively.

I really like deposits that are a third to a half of the total project cost within 30 days or less of signing the contract. Then you get a smaller chunk, another 25 or 30 percent, payable upon approval of design. So if you’re doing an illustration or a website, you get another chunk of money at a point in time where the client has to say, “Yes, I like this, move forward.” This signals to the client that we are done with the revision process.

I don’t think people understand how lawyers are taught to think in law school. Basically, we’re taught to be scared that the world is going to end and it’s going to be our fault if we don’t do everything perfectly.

And then you can get the remainder once the project is live. This not only mitigates your risk in not getting paid, but it makes the client part of the process, and gives them something to look at that says, “This is the step we’re on. The first step of the process is where I get to provide all my feedback. Once I’ve paid that second chunk of money we’re going toward production, so I need to make sure I’ve said everything that I need to say before that approval happens.”

Any advice for working with lawyers?

I don’t think people understand how lawyers are taught to think in law school. Basically, we’re taught to be scared that the world is going to end and it’s going to be our fault if we don’t do everything perfectly. When clients come to us they’re usually fairly anxious, and they either need help making something as good as it can possibly be, or they want advice and help with a difficult situation. So I usually tell people that, when you’re talking to a lawyer, if you’re not getting the feedback you’re looking for, you need to be really clear about what you want. And you need to make your priorities clear. For example, you should say things like “I’m not concerned about the risk of X, my bigger concern is getting paid.” Because a lot of time we as lawyers don’t realize we’re obsessing over something that our client doesn’t care about.

I tell my clients, “I’m going to give you the best advice possible, but you don’t have to take it. Ultimately you’re in control of your business, and as your lawyer I am here to help you, so you need to make sure I’m providing you with that help and tell me when I’m not.”

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In the next part of our interview with Katie, we talk with her more about working with attorneys, and what to do in the event of a dispute with a client.

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.

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