Contracts are an essential part of the freelancing life. Without a proper contract in place, you risk not being paid at all, or doing a lot of work for clients who suddenly bail out in the middle of projects. Well-drafted agreements make life easier for both freelancer and client, because both parties know exactly what’s expected of them. It can be a little tricky to break a contract, but it can be done, and there are four iron-clad reasons why you might want to bid a client farewell early.
The End is Near
It’s been a good run—actually, perhaps it’s been terrible—but nevertheless, the time has come to break your oral or written contract and say goodbye. Perhaps your contract became legally problematic over time; maybe it was illegitimate from the beginning. Either way, most situations fall into the following four categories.
Terminating a Contract by Prior Agreement
Arguably the easiest way to terminate a contract is for both parties to agree that it’s best to end the working relationship. Ongoing communication issues, budget shortfalls and unforeseen issues can all be good reasons to quit while you’re ahead. If your contract states that either party can give written notice to the other if they wish to exit the agreement, you’re in even better shape.
Terminating Because of Fraud or Error
If your client outright lies to you about a vital part of the project, fails to forward you milestone payments, harrasses you, or otherwise behaves improperly, you have grounds to terminate your contract with them. If both parties create a contract based on mutual error, you also have grounds to end the agreement. In either case, the process is known as recission.
Terminating Because of a Contractual Breach
Clients who refuse to give you essential materials for your mutual project, or who deliberately prevent you from working are in breach of contract. If a client breaches the heart of a contract, causing you to lose earnings, you can sue them in court. Less serious breaches usually lead to a cessation in work and a voided contract.
Terminating Because the Contract is Impossible to Fulfill
Most—nay, nearly all—freelancers occasionally encounter clients whose expectations are extremely hard to fulfill, or who demand more than their contracts stipulate. Sometimes, you can negotiate your way out of a situation like that. If your client’s demands are literally impossible to achieve or if they’re illegal—say, if the individual insists that you use a copyrighted photograph in your design without permission—you can abort the contract for “impossibility of performance.”
Every scenario is different: some complex contractual breakups require a lot of negotiation, while others are easier to navigate. Most creative professionals have to deal with difficult situations from time to time, so if you’re feeling stuck, ask a seasoned colleague or two for advice.
How to Handle the Breakup
Decisions have been made and it’s time to start disentangling yourself from the contractual agreement. But how do you go about doing that? Your answer depends heavily on the situation and also on the client in question. Some circumstances are so cut-and-dried that the separation process is simple, while others demand a kid glove approach. Consider the following four ways to proceed before forging ahead.
Taking the Blame
Humbly taking the blame can keep bridges intact in case you want to work with your client again in the future. There are several ways to do this. You could thank your client for their help and support, and then tell them that for personal or professional reasons, you can’t continue to work with them. You could also direct them to an alternative freelancer you feel might be a better fit.
Absolute honesty often requires a little advanced prep and a lot of gumption. If your client has broken the terms of your mutual agreement or you’ve experienced harassment from them, you might choose blunt honesty on your way out of the door. Remain calm and professional, speak your piece and allow your soon-to-be former client a chance to respond. If necessary, record the entire conversation.
Legitimate—or apparently legitimate—excuses can offer both you and the client an easy way out. Perhaps the client’s quarterly sales are down, leading them to make cuts in their marketing spending, or perhaps you’re changing your business model. In either case, good scapegoats make great painless outros for problematic contracts. They also leave the door open for future work when conditions improve.
If you know your client is prone to drama, you might decide to sugar coat your reason for walking away. Take a deep breath, fill your mental script with compliments and give them every reason to think favorably of you after your meeting. Stay polite, be firm and recommend an alternate freelance professional to help them move on.
No matter which approach you use, don’t procrastinate. If you’re nervous, ask a peer to sit in on your meeting or telephone call, or copy a colleague into your breakup email. Particularly tricky cases might require a lawyer, but most of the time, you will find your way successfully through the breakup process without paid external help. When you’re done, treat yourself: you’ve earned it.
Freelancing can be tremendously empowering in many ways: you don’t have a boss and you can work from anywhere. With that said, you also don’t have a legal department to handle sticky contractual issues. By learning a little about business law and asking for advice where necessary, you can stay successful and build a great client base. If you have a concrete reason to break a contract, don’t be afraid to follow through, and keep a running record of your actions in case you need to defend them in the future.