Use email to avoiding disputes and ensure payment for your freelance work.
A videographer friend once found himself in a situation that is unfortunately all too common for freelancers: after agreeing by phone to shoot, edit, and produce a commercial, he laid out $90,000 of his own money and did the job. Then the agency that hired him refused to pay. My friend had virtually nothing in writing to prove that a contract even existed, much less what the agreed-upon terms were. My friend ultimately got paid, but first he had to hire a lawyer, burn his professional relationship with the agency that hired him, and lose a lot more sleep than he should have.
Most people don’t realize that, with certain exceptions, verbal service contracts *are* legally enforceable. The problem is that just because they’re legally enforceable, doesn’t mean they’re practically enforceable: if you have a deal in place to do a small job, the cost of hiring a lawyer and proving the existence of a verbal contract can be more than the job is worth.
Let’s take the story above and turn it into a teachable moment. Here are some practical tips to using email to create written contracts that you’ll be able to collect on (or at least keep your legal fees down if it comes to that.)
Send an immediate follow-up email
When you agree by phone or in person to do a job, the best practice is to send an immediate follow-up email. The email should contain the key components of the deal:
- The Work: What have you agreed to do?
- The Money: How much are you getting paid
- “The Double When”:
- When are you doing the work
- When are you getting paid?
The “Double-When” is a crucial point that’s often left out (and was the cause of my friend’s problems in the story above), because people often assume they’ll get paid “when the job is done”. Make sure you lay out when you’re getting paid as precisely as possible, and, if you’re buying a bunch of materials, we suggest getting at least part of the payment in advance.
The Clarification in Closing: you can add a last sentence where the person agrees by not responding. If you were a lawyer, you’d write “if anything stated herein is incorrect, please notify me in writing of the specific point of disagreement.” But a much friendlier version is “let me know if there’s anything I left out.”
Lets take a look at these tricks in practice. The tone of the email can be friendly and informal:
Great talking to you this afternoon. As we discussed, I’ll prepare a 4-course vegan dinner (soup, entrée, salad, and dessert) for 10 people at your house on April 17, with dinner starting at 7:30pm. I’ll be there around 6 to start preparing. My fee is $800 (including groceries), payable half now and half after the dinner. You can send me the deposit via my Venmo account. Let me know if I’ve left anything out. See you on the 17th! ”
A simple 1-paragraph email like this can literally be the difference between getting paid and getting stiffed.
CoFounder & COO