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I recently got an offer to do a small freelance project to display my skills and was offered some money for my effort; a flat rate upon completion. I've already talked to the company and I'm confident they have an actual interest in me so I took the project, but I agreed before requesting a contract.

It does seem like a fair practice to have someone do a little work for you as an example project, so I didn't really think anything of it. After the fact I recalled many nightmare stories of freelance workers getting ripped off when they do work without a clear contract. This wasn't a major project but did require investment of my time.

When I'm approached for projects like this should I request a contract upfront first? Would I risking (real) job offers by doing this? I don't want to appear rude, but I don't want to waste my time.

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

Just from a law perspective, you should always get a contract any time there is money being provided in exchange for a service, no matter what it is. Don't end up on Judge Judy!

Contracts are the easiest way to resolve any issue in an instant.

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Yes you should.

It shows you're a professional. It gives you a chance to be very professional. Whip up an invoice, etc.

Initially it may a feel a bit 'burdensome' but after time you'll find that businesses basically expect these expenses, they're set up to do this and it's usually not the direct money of the person in front of you.

Also, as voretaq7 points out they may seem like a long-lost family member when you're starting on the project but if they're not happy - even if it's because they're unreasonable, they can turn around and say we're only paying you 50% or 25% or whatever. A contract takes uncertainty away with legal clarity.

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My totally-not-a-lawyer opinion (reached after discussion with my totally-a-lawyer lawyer, back in my consulting days): Any time money is expected to change hands some kind of written agreement should be signed saying which direction the money travels, what goods/services will be received in exchange, and any other such terms as the parties may agree upon.

The reason behind this is simple: You do some work for a client - say you spend a week on it - and tell them "It's done, that will be $500". Your client turns around and says "We're paying you $50.", or "Hey that's a great job, but it needs to do xxx - we told you that right?". It's hard to resolve these situations without a contract.

This obviously doesn't mean you always have to charge for time/materials: You may have a zero-dollar contract for some work, or consider the investment of your time in some quick sample work as part of a proposal of sorts, but black-and-white agreements are the backbone of professional interaction, and I think they're essential if money is changing hands.

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It does not sound like a sample project, it sounds like a TRIAL project. They are treating you like a professionals whose skills they wish to make use of and evaluate -- so a small project to see how you do, a large project if they like your work.

The key difference between a sample project and a trial project, is that they actually want the trial project done, not just to see if you can do it. You should have treated this as any other project, a contract, terms, definition of work to be done, timeframe, who owns the code you write, all should've been spelled out.

Whether they are evaluating you as a contractor, or a full time employee isn't clear to me, but it doesn't really matter -- when working for money, be clear. You don't necessarily have to have pages and pages of legalese, but a signed document saying what is expected, yes, that you should have done.

Now, the fact that they want to pay you for this project, should be taken as a very big plus on your evaluation of them. They didn't try to get free work out of you under the guise of "sample".

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I recently got an offer to do a small freelance project to display my skills and was offered some money for my effort; a flat rate upon completion.

Since that was only a sample project, I don't think you really needed a contract. The fact that they paid you was a nice gesture.

However, for the real job you do need a contract. Don't even start without it.

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I've been doing contract work for over fifteen years, and the only contracts i've signed have been employment contracts with agencies, but never when I negotiate directly with the actual client. Most small businesses are very uncomfortable with lawyers. It can easily add thousands of dollars to a project, and for most small businesses, it is not worth it.

If you are doing business with an unknown agency in a far-flung place on the planet with someone who isn't going to be paying your invoice, or accepting it for approval, for a project that is in the mid-five figures or more, you certainly want a contract to back up a detailed spec.

But if you are doing a $1500 project for a business in your own town, that you can go to their offices, or they can pick up the phone and call you, the request to bring a in a laywer will understandably frighten most potential clients away, since it could add a thousand dollars or more to the deal. Plus, most business people try to avoid lawyers whenever possible. Most businesses that have been around for a while know that they don't want to burn a good developer or contractor. Not only is it a PITA to find such people, but they know word gets out.

Saying, "I'm going to charge you a lot of money if you don't pay on this date" is not a very good way of building up a good business relationship.

Disagreements on deliverables is best done with specificity at the time of the problem, in a co-operative, problem-solving mode, not in the adversarial mode that lawyers and contracts create.

If you get a deadbeat client (in my experience - very rare and easy to spot) having spent money on a lawyer to draw up a contract won't get them to cough up your money, it's just letting good money follow bad.

On the other hand, if they have in-house counsel and routinely require contracts, it's fine to sign it. Just be sure to take it home and read and understand it first, and keep a copy for yourself. Most contracts offered are very one-sided, so you want to make sure that your interests are protected. If you want to get a lawyer to explain it to you, it will cost you a lot of money. You could find one-sided contracts offered by contracting agencies to their clients to see what your side should be looking at and make the modifications and negotiate the contract.

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