Freelance medical writers typically work on projects for varying amounts of time, depending on the project parameters. However, on occasion, clients may want a freelancer to commit to being available to them for a set period of time rather than for a specific project. What is a long-term contract, and what should you do when a client offers you one? Let’s start at the beginning.
What Is a Long-Term Contract?
Clients use long-term contracts—known as retainer agreements in the United States and framework agreements in Europe—to secure a freelancer’s services for a set period of time. These agreements often work in favor of the client, not the freelancer. Some do not clearly define the scope or requirements of the project. That is why experts often recommend against signing long-term contracts unless there is a particular advantage to doing so.
For freelancers, long-term contracts may resemble short-term staff positions, with little definition of scope, rates, deliverables, or demands. While assuring guaranteed income, they also raise concerns for freelancers about whether they will still be in control of their time and compensation.
Some experienced freelance medical communicators warn against longer-term contracts, especially once you have an established freelance business. But if you are thinking of signing a long-term contract, it is important to understand how the contracts work, weighing the potential benefits and pitfalls.
Freelance Contract Basics
Two of the most important areas to master as a freelance business owner are project estimates and contracts. Without a solid understanding of these, freelance medical writers are not able to control their relationships with clients, as they protect against discrepancies and differing expectations that can cause friction and lost time and productivity.. Estimates and contracts can protect freelancers from missteps and differing expectations that can lead to friction with clients and lost time and productivity.
A good contract sets expectations for both parties and protects freelancers from unscrupulous clients. Proactivity is key. When freelancers present a detailed and accurate estimate to clients in advance of receiving a contract, negotiations can go more smoothly.
To arrive at an estimate, the freelancer asks questions of the client regarding budget, deadlines, meeting requirements, travel, points of contact, and protocols for revisions. They can also request samples of similar successful projects. A detailed estimate can jump-start the contract process, and some clients will incorporate the freelancer’s project description into the contract, eliminating surprises.
In preparing an estimate, freelancers must first decide how to charge the client: by the hour or by the project.
Hourly vs Project Pricing
Experienced freelancers and novices alike have long debated the topic of how to charge clients. In a 2013 article in the AMWA Journal, Elizabeth L. Smith, a former president of AMWA, writes that medical communication work is often billed on a project basis while regulatory medical writers tend to bill by the hour. Many medical writers simply feel more confident charging by the hour than by the project because it gives them a sense of having more control over their compensation. Preparing a project estimate can also be a daunting task, particularly for less-experienced freelancers. Beginning freelancers may want to start by charging by the hour with the intention of moving to project pricing later, although it can be challenging to get clients to switch.
Cyndy Kryder and Brian Bass, coauthors of The Accidental Medical Writer, “vocally, and fervently” recommend that freelancers charge per project, not per hour, because “charging by the hour punishes the proficient and rewards the inefficient.” They provide this example:
“A writer starting out may charge $85 an hour and take 50 hours to complete a project, for a total of $4,250, which is quite acceptable to the client. As the writer gets better, he or she increases the hourly rate to $100, completes the same project in just 30 hours, and earns only $3,000—a $1,250 (29%) cut for being a better writer. In time, the writer becomes even more proficient and increases his or her hourly rate to $125. The same project is now completed in just 20 hours, and the writer earns only $2,500—41% less than when the writer started out and was charging 32% less per hour.
In this scenario, the better you get at what you do, the more you are financially punished, and the harder you have to work to earn the same pay as when you were a less proficient writer."
AMWA’s 2019 Medical Communication Compensation Report provides the most recent benchmarks for understanding freelancer compensation.
Contracts Help You Get Paid
In the Freelance Forum column of the AMWA Journal, veteran medical writers discussed strategies to ensure that clients pay promptly and in full. They suggest having signed contracts and agreements, only working with clients you trust, establishing benchmarks after which you are paid (eg, after submitting the first draft), and invoicing every 2 weeks or even every week.
These strategies can help you get paid on time, whether your contract is short- or long-term.
Contracts Have Clause(s)
There are a few things to watch out for when signing contracts. For example, the scope of a project matters greatly. Every contract needs to be read carefully to avoid pitfalls like scope creep, shifting deadlines, and cancellations. Noncompete clauses are another potential pitfall.
In Best of Pencil Points Volume 2, Kryder and Bass warn that contracts often use “boilerplate” (standard) noncompete clauses: “Be alert for boilerplate noncompete clauses with language that prevents you from working for a client in the same industry or restricts you from writing in the same disease state for a specified period of time. This is a restriction of trade. Ask for these clauses to be removed from the contract.”
So, Should You Take On a Long-Term Contract?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Some medical writers and editors find long-term contracts desirable because they guarantee work and pay for a set period of time. But as already pointed out, there are downsides, too. Instead of a well-defined project contract or a statement of work (SOW), a long-term agreement can be a client’s way of securing your services for a period of time without clearly defining the scope or requirements of what you will be doing; only how much you will be paid.
When you sign a long-term contract, some clients may treat you more like an employee than a freelancer. They may require you to submit weekly timesheets that detail the hours you work on their projects. This is the client’s way of ensuring your accountability, but it only reinforces the false assumption that the client is buying your time rather than your experience and expertise.
Making It Work
Despite the potential pitfalls, some freelancers—especially those just starting out—may choose to sign long-term framework or retainer agreements. They appreciate the sense of “security” of knowing they will have steady work and pay.
If you do find yourself negotiating a framework or retainer agreement, it is important to do your utmost to define the scope of the work. Here are a few suggestions for making the best of these situations.
- Identify what the client is providing, what you are providing, and what the deliverables are.
- Account for meetings and teleconferences.
- Leave room in your schedule for other clients.
- Set frequent review dates (no longer than 3 months) so you can renegotiate if things are feeling out of balance.
Communication Is Key
Excellent medical writers and editors are in demand, and those who choose to freelance often appreciate the flexibility and control of project-based contracts. However, fair long-term contracts are an option in some situations.
In both cases, solid contracts and clear communication with clients lead to well-compensated, fulfilling work.