In addition to being our own bosses, office managers, and PR people, most freelancers have to take on the role of collections agent from time to time. In fact, more than 70 percent of freelancers have trouble getting paid at some point in their careers, according to the Freelancers Union. That’s right—it’s not just you.
And while I’ve been encouraged by recent protective measures like New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act, over the course of my career I’ve learned the hard way that the best defense against late or no payment is a good (and legally binding) offense.
The Underwhelmed Client
Years ago, as a freshly minted freelancer, I took on some public relations work for a start-up. The founder hired me to boost brand awareness with high-profile media placements. While I delivered some great press hits for him, he was dissatisfied with anything less than first-tier publications and used that to justify only paying me half of what we’d agreed to. Without a written scope of work, my invoice, follow-ups, and a threatening letter did nothing.
The Referral Gone Rogue
Now that I’ve been in the biz for some time, most of my work now comes from referrals. One of my long-time clients at a Fortune-50 company referred me to an entrepreneur who needed help creating content for a new website. Given my trust in the referrer, I willingly accepted the tasks assigned, skipping the formalities of a contract or any written agreement. I submitted six writing assignments and edited one 5,000-word e-book…and heard nothing. Months later, after multiple follow-up emails, the entrepreneur finally responded, saying they didn’t feel that I deserved to be paid because they didn’t like the voice and tone I’d used in the pieces. Without a contract, I had no recourse and had to chalk up the work.
The Favor for a Friend
One of my friends who owns a business called me and asked for last-minute help writing copy for a new product launch. I agreed to the work terms over the phone and proceeded to drop everything else to help her out. I delivered the requested content in less than 24 hours, then, assuming she was fine with my usual hourly rate, sent an invoice charging what I charge other clients. Three follow-up reminders later, she chalked up my work as a personal favor and never paid me. We’re not friends anymore.
The Common Denominator
You’ve probably already figured out the mistake I made in each of these cases. By failing to use a contract or any kind of written agreement, I wasn’t able to make my case for payment. So, to all my fellow freelancers, new and veteran alike, please ALWAYS protect yourself with a legally binding contract. There should never be an exception, not even for referrals or friends.
Your contract should always include payment details, including the full amount due and payment terms, deliverables, and work expectations. Consider also specifying the number of revisions and language around ownership and rights. For contract templates, check out the Freelancers Union and PandaDoc.
If you don’t want to deal with individual contracts, marketplaces like Contently offer the opportunity to contract with one organization and receive work and payment from multiple companies through a central platform.
If you do have a contract in place, and still haven’t received payment, try the following:
- Send one or two reminder emails, 5 and ten business days past due dates. (Using accounting software, you should be able to automate this task.)
- Charge interest for late payments.
- Hire a lawyer to send a letter. “Sometimes the idea of legal action can get the client to contact you and, at the very least, make an arrangement to pay what they owe,” said freelancer Christina Majaski.
- Hire an arbitration or mediation service like the American Arbitration Association, JAMS (Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services), or the National Arbitration Forum.
- Take it to court. You can sue a client and send them to small claims court, but remember, it could be an expensive endeavor.
There are currently no nationally recognized laws protecting freelancers from non-payment. Be your own advocate, protect yourself, and reap all the rewards of being your own boss.
Got more tips on client non-payment strategies and protections for freelancers? Tweet at us@TheFreelancer. If you’re a freelancer, register here for a Contently portfolio to get in front of top brands and secure your next gig.