Practice Note Number 12: Things You Need to Know (Part 3) People Will Ask You to Work for Free

— 3 minute read

It will happen. You will be happily working away and then you will get the call about a potential new job… but there is a catch. The catch sounds small to begin with, but as the detail emerges, it turns out that the catch is that you will need to do some work for free and then if all goes well, then you will get paid really well later on down the line.

Now, I can definitely see where the client might be coming from: Let’s get to know each other and if you are any good we can make things work well for the both of us. The temptation for the architect is to take the job on and categorize the time spent on it as marketing until fees start appearing.

I would like to know if this has ever really worked out for either party.

I had a conversation with a potential new client on this basis a few weeks ago. It was, as is often the case based on the notion that I would obtain planning permission for a project and once the permission was in place I would be retained to carry out the work and would be invited to bid for lots more work to follow. The client had apparently already spent money on architect’s fees trying to obtain permission and had failed and he didn’t want to spend any more money on it – but he was convinced that permission should be possible.

I tried to explain that, in order to do something meaningful with the application, time would need to be spent on it – and that undercutting the amount of time spent on it in order to keep my own risk to a minimum would result in an increased risk of failure at planning – thus doubling the risk for me on project that has been proved to be quite difficult already. Add this to the risk that the pipeline jobs might never appear and suddenly the great prospects don’t look good for either of us. Him for time wasted and possibly a planning gain opportunity missed and me time and effort down the drain. But crucially for me, the time wasted on could have been spent on alternative marketing and plans for the future.

It is always difficult to say a straight no when I get the work for free calls; I can’t resist testing the water just in case there really is gold at the end of the rainbow, but experience tells me it’s hard to find.