How to Get Signatures
In terms of how to get your contract signed, I have clients all over the United States (actually none of them are local to me) and we handle all contracts by email and/or fax. Digital and faxed signatures have the same authority as an actual paper document, and I’ve never had a problem. Fill out your contract template and send to your client as a PDF file via email, and ask them to sign and either scan/email it back or fax it back to you. Once you have their signature, sign your name and then send them a copy for their files with both signatures.
If you want to go all-digital, you might look at a service like http://contractual.ly/ or http://www.echosign.com/ that will handle electronic signatures. I haven’t used either of these services personally, but I’ve heard good things about both. Contractual.ly is a relatively new company, but EchoSign has been around quite a while and supports many Fortune 500 companies.
Enforcing Your Contract
Contract enforcement (whether it’s in your own country or elsewhere) is a bit of a different animal. If you ever have a dispute with a client, in all likelihood it won’t be worth the time, money and resources to take legal action against them. A contract also won’t prevent a client from suing you, and likewise it won’t prevent you from getting stiffed by the client. While this might sound scary, having a contract in place can help prevent misunderstandings (or mis-remembering) and will give you options about what to do if things go awry.
A good contract will spell out terms clearly so you and your client both know what you’re getting in to – mostly who will do what and when, and what will happen if one of you fails to do their part. At the end of the day though, a contract is just a document and your client relationships must be built on trust and good communication.
Getting a Lawyer to Review Your Contract
I’m not a lawyer and I don’t even play one on TV. I would keep looking for an attorney to provide business guidance over the long-term, but that doesn’t need to stop you from getting started or doing business now. You don’t necessarily need an attorney who knows about web design either. Any general business attorney should be able to cover the basics for a freelance design/development business. If you want to get fancy, look for an attorney who specializes in technology or intellectual property issues.
You can also get some legal help even without shelling out the big bucks for an attorney. You can contact SCORE for free business counseling with a mentor. SCORE mentors offer free advice to small businesses and you can find someone near you at http://www.score.org/ for support either in-person or by email. Actually it doesn’t necessarily need to be someone near you either; any mentor or attorney in your state should be able to help. A SCORE mentor won’t be able to provide “official” legal advice, but he/she can give you some piece of mind by reviewing your contract template to see if there are any obvious issues or areas that you might have missed.
Go Get Some Clients!
Honestly, I would do the best you can with a contract template, get extra advice where you think you need it, then stop worrying about it and go get some clients. While I would never advocate doing business without a contract (or without getting a deposit first), if you treat your clients fairly and honestly it’s unlikely that you’ll ever run into any insurmountable legal issues related to contracts.