Boundaries for Consultants

Monday, January 5th, 2009

(N.B. I am not a lawyer. Legal information is not legal advice.)

As a consultant, it’s important to set boundaries with your clients. You and the client are engaged in a contractual arrangement where you provide a set of services for compensation. This relationship is in fact defined in U.S. law1 as distinct from the relationship between employer and employee. In legal jargon consultants are called “independent contractors.” I’ll use that term for the rest of this article.

This legal distinction is important. For example, employers take deductions out of the pay of employees and put them towards state and federal taxes. Not so for independent contractors. This added financial burden drives some companies to try to get a “free employee” by taking advantage of consultants. Do not let them take advantage of you.

It can be really easy for both clients and independent contractors to fall back into the employee/employee relationship: it’s comfortable and familiar, and even superficially similar to the client/consultant relationship.

One thing that can help is to establish boundaries. Remember, you are working with them, not for them. One of your rights as a consultant is the ability to determine when, where and how you do your work. Here are some boundaries that I set:

  • Email me. Voice, video and IM are great ways to communicate, but they are a huge interruption in my day. Unlike an employee, I am not “on the clock” at any particular time. I’m fine with a phone call, IM conversation or video chat, but any work related chats should be at times mutually agreed upon 24 hours in advance, just like if we were to meet face to face2.

  • Artwork first. If you are supplying the graphic resources for a project, you need to supply them first before I’ll start programming. They do not need to be 100% final, but they should be at least the right size.

  • I am my boss. As an independent contractor, I am allowed to determine when, where and how I work. I might not be working at any particular time of day or on any particular day of the week. Obviously, we will set deadlines for the various milestones of our project and will need to arrange meetings, but other than that I control my own schedule.

  • No working on spec. The term “working on spec” I have borrowed from my designer friends. It means to work on speculation of profit, i.e. without a clear contract. It’s naturally always necessary to do some work upfront to write a good contract with a solid plan, but there are some things I won’t do without signing a contract — write code, for instance. Sometimes I will say “Enough is enough, let’s write a contract now or go our separate ways.”

  • Contracts are per-project. Every contract has a clear end condition specified in it. It doesn’t mean we have to part ways, but just gives us a chance to re-evaluate our relationship. I’m in most cases happy to renew a profitable and harmonious contract.

Depending on your situation and profession, you may have your own set of rules, but I think these are pretty universal.

Why these boundaries are important

The above guidelines may seem a bit explicit, but having boundaries like them is important for two reasons. The first one is monetary. If these rules aren’t followed, your legal classification as an independent contractor is at risk. This can mean big penalties from the government for your clients. Even worse, it means you’re now someone else’s employee.

The second is a bit more selfish. These guidelines make my life simpler. This turns out to be better for both me and my clients: when things are simple, I’m able to work quicker and bill less hours, which means my services are more affordable.

Remember, as a consultant you have rights too, and it’s important to know what they are. Don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself and say “No.”

  1. I recommend Nolo’s Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Independent Contractors, Freelancers & Consultants by Attorney Stephen Fishman for more information. 

  2. There is an exception for emergencies. The litmus test for emergencies is if you would be willing to pay me $100/minute for my time. 


  1. Drew McManus replied on January 5th, 2009:

    I completely agree. I always have a conversation about our working relationship with a client BEFORE we sign the contract. I also spell out a lot of the arrangement in the contract itself.

    A lot of my clients are in San Francisco, and I live far away. I make sure we all have the same expectations about where and when I work, and how I can be reached.

    Nice post.