Fellow contractors, take heed. If you read nothing else but this intro, please take my next sentence very seriously. Require clients to sign a legally binding contract before you begin work.
It sounds obvious enough, I know. Yet, for some businesses, not providing a contract is like waving a “Will Work for Free! Ask Me How!” sign. You don’t provide a contract; your client might not provide one either.
How are you supposed to know the terms of your working agreement? How much will you be paid? When will you be paid? What is the client’s measure of your success? Who owns the materials you’ve created? When can you leave? Can you be fired?
Without a contract, no one really knows the answers to these extremely important questions except your client. If he did not provide a contract for you to sign, then there’s a chance he’s hiding all of that information, possibly hoping you’ll inadvertently break one of those unspoken rules so he can hold you accountable for breach of contract. (What contract? Why, the non-existent, phantom contract, silly!) Even if some aspects were verbalized, there’s no signature binding either you or the client. Do you really want to leave your hard-earned pay and reputation on the line with a verbal contract? What if a dispute arises? Well, it’s a whole, big, steaming pile of mess, and it may or may not be worth the legal fees for you to fight.
Get acquainted with other contractors in your area. Before starting a job, ask them for information about your potential client. If there are any red flags, like high turnover, complaints about working conditions or expectations, beware. Also look for signs that the client could be treating contractors like employees, an illegal tax/wage/benefits evasion tactic known as misclassification. Trust me. These kinds of clients know what they’re doing.
No, it’s not fair. Yes, there are ways to win these legal battles, depending on a lot of factors, and you need more than sufficient proof to validate your claims.
Bottom line? If you’re new to the independent contractor world, please, please, please hire a lawyer to draft a contract for you. It won’t cost much, and you’ll avoid migraines and random bouts of cursing later.