Over the course of this column, we’ve talked a great deal about how specific areas of the law can affect you and what some of the legal pitfalls of being a freelance writer are. However, today we’re going to take a look at the more broad legal questions every freelancer needs to answer in order to make sure that they are protected no matter what happens.
So, if you haven’t thought much about your legal situation and the steps you need to take in order to be certain you’re ready for any legal conflict that may arise, here’s a quick primer in some of the critical legal questions you should be asking yourself to get ready for the possibility that, some day, you may find yourself in a dispute
Bear in mind that this isn’t a definitive list by any stretch, but is meant more to get you thinking about the types of things you need to ponder to be safe(r) online legally and the be read for when and if bad things happen.
1. Who is Your Lawyer?
You don’t have to keep a lawyer on retainer constantly to be a freelancer, but it helps to have a lawyer you know and who knows you that you can call should any legal questions or problems arise.
For most freelancers, it’s best if this attorney is more of a general practice lawyer, one who works in a variety of fields, as most of the questions you’ll likely have are business and/or contract related. However, if more specialized problems arise, such as copyright, libel, etc. they can either research the problem or, more likely, find you another attorney that can help.
In short, think of this attorney as a starting point, a bit like a family doctor that you see and get referrals to specialists as needed.
2. Are You a Person or a Company?
If you are serious about being a freelancer, especially if you have taken on a company name in addition to your own, you likely want to see about filing paperwork and becoming a limited liability company (LLC). In the U.S., this has a slew of benefits including greater legal protection for you personally (one typically has to sue an LLC instead of a person, making personal assets exempt) and may even provide tax benefits in some situations.
Best of all, in most states the cost of forming an LLC is minimal, usually under $100, and the time it takes is almost nil, often just a matter of filling out a single form.
If you are at all worried about being sued, forming a company is a sensible move to make.
3. How Do You Track Expenses/Income?
Whether it’s for tax purposes, to resolve a contract dispute or just to know how much you owe a service provider, keeping on top of your finances is critical.
Services such as Shoeboxed can help you keep track of your receipts and Freshbooks can easily help you keep track of your invoicing and client payments. Best of all, both make it easy to generate reports and know exactly how much money you have coming in, going out, owe and are owed.
In short, whether it’s the taxman or a client with a different view, you’ll have the documentation to backup your argument.
4. What is Your Contract Protocol?
We’ve talked a great deal about why you should always have a contract and what to look for in it, but every contract has a process from receipt (or submission), negotiation and signing.
Determining how you’re going to walk every contract through its paces is critical. You should have a good stock contract available if you need to get things started and then a process for going back and forth and eventually signing the deal
The article above provides some great tips and links to services that can help streamline the entire process, but the important thing is that you have a consistent and thorough process for handling these matters so you don’t make mistakes and every deal gets signed timely.
5. How Can People Easily and Consistently Contact You?
Finally, in the event of a legal dispute of any sort, it is crucial that people be able to contact you. So, if others do need to contact you urgently, how can they do so? It’s important not just to think about how they can do it today, but how they can do it a few years down the road as well.
This is easier said than done when you consider that people move, email addresses die and phone numbers change. Your best bet may be to get a post office box somewhere that will notify you when you have new mail. As long as you keep the box active and update your notification info, you should be able to get mail consistently for as long as needed.
However, virtually any method of contact that will work so long as it is consistent and will be available years down the road.
All in all, there’s no real secret to staying safe(r) on the Web legally. It’s all about taking reasonable steps to protect yourself, acting in good faith when working with others and remaining both realistic and cautious when dealing with others. If you can do that, you’ll likely find that, for the most part, you avoid serious issues and complications.
That being said, the time to start thinking about these issues is now. If you don’t have your legal situation squared away when something happens, you may find yourself scrambling to cover the basics before you can deal with the situation at hand and that can cost you precious time and put you at a severe disadvantage.
It is much better to be prepared and not need the preparation than it is to be caught off guard.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.
Chris Vanasdalan says
Jonathan – Some excellent points here. I’m nearly a year into my freelancing career and am just now getting started on the legal aspects, since business is starting to grow.
I do have a question about insurance coverage. I mostly write advertising and marketing copy, but I’ve had some clients ask if I have liability coverage, specifically Errors & Omissions Insurance.
I can’t see very many situations where this would be needed. I don’t plan on writing anything that’s untrue, libelous or slanderous. Do writers really need to worry about E & O coverage?
Jonathan Bailey says
Chris: Good question, I hadn’t talked about insurance up to this point because, well, no one asked. However, what little I know about E&O coverage goes like this.
Typically, E&O insurance is targeted at insurance and real estate agents rather than freelance writers. These are situations where, if you make a mistake, someone could easily be hurt or killed. If one, for example, forgets to mention a leaky gas pipe.
This type of insurance is expensive and probably not worthwhile considering the VERY low likelihood of being sued if you’re remotely careful with your writing.
Sometimes E&O language is simply stock in the contracts they have and you can get an exemption. Same as how worker’s comp is often in these contracts and you can get a pass on it too.
All in all, I don’t recommend E&O insurance. When you’re freelance writing, your greatest legal threat is usually your client. So there’s no reason to pay money to protect them from something that, almost certainly, won’t happen.
Chris Vanasdalan says
Thanks Jonathan. That’s pretty much what I expected. I won’t worry about it for now. Appreciate the feedback.
Hello Jonathan, I have been following your inputs on Freelancing for sometime. I would like to know a couple of things if you can help:
1. As a freelancer, are there any laws in US/Canada/Australia to protect from being cheated? Can you direct me to any websites for reference?
2. At one time, I used to work for a Canadian company, the company hired me for a fixed number of hours per week at a mutually negotiated rate. Once the job was done, I submitted my time sheet and the company refused to pay. Since then, I never got paid for my work. Is there anything I can do to get my money from the company? How can I prevent this from happening again?
3. If I am working for clients all over world, am I liable to pay taxes in each country or just in my country of residence? How are taxations handled for a freelancing jobs online?
I would highly appreciate your guidance.