Once both parties have agreed to terms, signed the contract, and exchanged copies, put it away.
It’s there should you need it, but don’t use it as a shield during the project. There will be a million small disputes while you’re working together. The vast majority of these should be handled with civil conversations, always in person when possible. Handling disputes with conversation will eventually build the client relationship. Pulling out the contract at every possible opportunity will only undermine the relationship. Save it for those moments when things have actually gotten bad. Most projects don’t get that bad. And if they do, it’s a sign that you’re doing something else wrong.
However, do make sure you understand everything you’ve agreed to and act like it. For example, if you have agreed to get approval in writing at every milestone, do that consistently. Don’t get lazy just because the project seems to be going well.
If a project gets to the point where you feel like the other party isn’t meeting their end of the contract, address it as soon as possible. But approach it with a positive attitude. Assume both parties want to fix it. This will be an account-level conversation. You and the client, one on one. Never whip out the contract in front of either team. You’ll have an easier time negotiating your way back to good project health in private. The goal is always to finish the project well.
Should it become clear that you’ve reached an impasse, then it’s time to call your lawyer for advice. Never threaten your client with your lawyer or with legal action until your lawyer tells you to do so.
The more careful you are when you enter into a client relationship, the more attention you pay to details and dotted i’s and crossed t’s, the more likely you are to get through that project doing good, successful work, and build a lasting relationship that will lead to new work and referrals for years to come.
If a jerk like me can do this, you certainly can. I guarantee you’re nicer.
In ten years of business, I have never taken a client to court. I’ve only ever fired clients twice, and those are none of your business. I’ve been fired once. In the few times it hasn’t worked out, the parting has usually been civil.
Except for the time it wasn’t. There’s no way I could write a chapter on contracts and ignore the biggest land mine of all.