While a portfolio is an incredibly useful tool for convincing clients that you can get the job done, there’s a catch: Contractors usually don’t retain the rights to the work they create, and they’re often bound by confidentiality agreements.

In order to create your portfolio, you need to obtain the express permission of every client whose property appears in that portfolio. In this article, I’ll tell you how to get that permission.

Last in a series

The first article in this two-part series, “Putting together a portfolio,” suggested ways to break out pieces of your previous projects to showcase your talents to potential clients.

If possible, get the rights when you get the contract
The best way to ensure you can include a sample of your work in a portfolio is to obtain the client’s permission upfront. My standard contract includes a clause stating that I have the right to retain one copy of all documentation I create to be used in a portfolio.

The clause states that the work in the portfolio will remain in my possession at all times and will never be left with another company for examination when I am not present.

If the client is still concerned about confidentiality, I suggest one or more of the following additions, which usually removes any objections:

  • I will remove the company’s name and any identifying information from the work used in the portfolio.
  • I will use only a representative piece of the work I create, not the entire work.
  • The client has the right to approve the piece I choose.

You may be able to think of other ways to ease your clients’ minds. For example, if you’re a programmer, you could stipulate that you will include only a demonstration of the finished program, never the uncompiled code.

Contact previous clients to ask for permission
But what if you’re just putting together your portfolio and didn’t think to include a clause like this in your previous contracts? First, go back and take a look at the confidentiality clauses. Then, contact your client and ask for permission—no matter what the clause states.

For example, one contract I signed stated only that I cannot share any “written, printed, graphic, or electronically recorded materials” provided to me by the client; it placed no restrictions on the material I produce.

Even so, I did ask the client permission to include the work I created in a portfolio. The client gave me the okay, but if it had become a problem, I had the wording of the confidentiality clause to fall back on.

Always have it in writing
When it isn’t already in your contract, you’ll need to obtain the client’s permission in writing. Make a phone call or schedule a brief meeting with your former client. If possible, show the client the exact material you would like to include if you won’t be using the entire work you produced.

If you think you might have a problem getting approval, try to find segments of your work for that client that aren’t proprietary or confidential. Point out that the work will never be out of your possession or left with another company. Again, you can also suggest removing all company-specific information.

You can deliver to the client a release form to sign and return that grants their permission, along with a copy for the client to keep. Include in this form letter the same basic points outlined above but state them less formally. You could use wording along the following lines, substituting the necessary information as appropriate:

Client grants permission to Contractor to include in his/her portfolio the work completed for Client between [date] and [date]. The portfolio will take the form of [specify the form in which you will present the work, such as printed copy, CD, or slide presentation].
Client agrees that the work included in the portfolio will consist of [specify what you will be using in the portfolio, such as screen captures and what they show, a page range of a specific document, or a demonstration of an actual program]. Contractor agrees that all portfolio materials will remain in his/her possession at all times.

Ask the client to sign and date the letter, and make sure that the person who signs off on the form has the authority to do so. It’s best to have the same signatures on this release as you do on your contract.

If the client absolutely refuses to allow you to present any part of your work in a portfolio, honor their wishes. Jeopardizing a client’s trust and risking a lawsuit is just too high a price to pay.

Has a client ever stopped you from showing past work?

Has a contract prohibited you from showing your past work to a potential client? Did you find a way to work around it? Send your suggestions to us in an e-mail or in a discussion.