Counseling Today, Private Practice in Counseling

Seeing yourself as a businessperson

Robert J. Walsh and Norman C. Dasenbrook March 4, 2007

Q: My goal for 2007 is to establish my own private practice. What do I need to do first to succeed in my goal?

A: Many of us entertain the notion of being in private practice, but few of us realize this notion for a variety of reasons. For instance, we hold ourselves back because of a lack of confidence in our knowledge of how to be self-employed. As a profession, we are strong clinically, but we are lacking in business sense. Being a well-trained and ethical counselor is the foundation for starting your own private practice. But while being competent is essential, it doesn’t mean you will make it in private practice. You also need to see yourself as a businessperson.

As a private practitioner, you need to think of yourself as the CEO of your own corporation. Not only do you need to make good clinical decisions, you also need to make good business decisions. Good business decisions inherently involve some risk. Risk-taking has a tendency to make us feel uncomfortable. But if your professional aspirations include private practice, you will need to deal with feeling uncomfortable on occasion. (And after all, isn’t this something we encourage our clients to do?) Feeling uncomfortable may result from competing with other counselors, ensuring you collect your fees, justifying why a managed care company should pay you, promoting yourself to the public, public speaking or demonstrating the confidence you have in your own abilities. But being uncomfortable will make you a better businessperson.

As a private practitioner, you need to think of yourself as an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is someone who “organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” You will need to capitalize on changes or new trends. Many private practitioners resist managed health care and the need to cooperate with insurance companies. But if you understand and work with these systems and institutions, it can be both professionally and financially rewarding. Rather than looking for obstacles and threats to starting your practice, you need to look for ways to practice better, smarter or more efficiently, with an eye on the bottom line.

As a private practitioner, you need to think of yourself as a consultant. You are an expert in human behavior and relationships. These skills apply not only to clients and their families in your office but also to businesses, industries, organizations and institutions. Anywhere people want to improve or need to interact with each other, there is a potential need for your services.

As a private practitioner, you need to think of yourself as a marketing person. Interactions with others are always a good opportunity to promote yourself. You may promote yourself by attending a school staffing about a student you are counseling, making appointments with potential referral sources to inform them about the effectiveness of your services, offering to give a speech to a gathering, advising a managed health care company of your specialties or that you have evening and weekend appointments available, etc. You need to seize every opportunity to promote yourself and your services. If you don’t, some other counselor will.

Lastly, you need to think of yourself and your practice in terms of diversification. It is rare these days to make a satisfying living from a traditional office practice. Generally, it takes many “income streams” to survive on your own. That might mean taking part-time employment at an agency, school or employee assistance program; subleasing your office space; teaching; writing; lecturing; offering mediation services; consulting; supervising; and/or doing something that is closely related. Don’t attempt to put all your eggs in one basket.

Q: I’m a high school counselor who has lived and worked overseas for the past 15 years. I’m coming home to the United States in June 2007 and do not want to continue in the school systems. I would love to open my own practice but have no idea on if or how I can do this. Can a high school counselor, licensed in school counseling, start a practice? Is there a calling for that? What kind of additional licensing or credentials would I need to obtain to start my own practice? I really appreciate your time and input. It’s a dream of mine to (leave) the school system; I’m just not sure that I’m qualified to do such a thing.

A: I worked as a school counselor for 25 years and applied for a counseling license in the state of Illinois. I have been in practice for 30 years. It depends on the state you intend to practice in, but all the states that offer licensure require a practicum, passing the state exam for your license and meeting the requirements for supervised hours. Check the licensing regulations in your particular state of interest (www.counseling.org/Counselors/LicensureAndCert/TP/StateRequirements/CT2.aspx), or e-mail me the state and I can forward you that information.

It is definitely doable, depending on the rules. As a school counselor, you may be positioned to help children and teens with school issues, which is a very good niche. Also check the American Counseling Association website at www.counseling.org/Counselors/PrivatePracticePointers.aspx in the member’s-only section for information about several private practice issues, including start-up. Good luck with this, and welcome home.

Q: Thank you for your assistance in the past when I’ve asked questions. I have another one. I hope you can provide some guidance. I am going to start my own practice in 2007. I am going to be leaving a group practice with clients and starting a solo practice. I have considered becoming an LLC or an S Corporation. As a licensed professional counselor, is it smart to do this, or is it unnecessary? An accountant suggested I find out if LPCs can be shielded from liability with an LLC. If so, he suggested I consider this; if not, then he stated it might not be necessary to form an LLC or S Corporation. I would love some guidance.

A: We are not attorneys, but we have researched the web and found a useful site that briefly explains partnerships at www.quizlaw.com/business_law/what_is_a_partnership.php. The legal status of your practice partnership depends on the laws of the state in which you practice. You would need to find an attorney in that state who understands corporate partnership laws.

Three possibilities are a PC (Professional Corporation), Subchapter S Corp. or the LLC (Limited Liability Company). Each provides some protection and/or tax advantages. Bob Walsh is a PC in Illinois, while I have a joint venture agreement with my partner and have not incorporated. Just make sure that whatever you do, you also get the best malpractice policy.

Q: I am interested in a template for forming a partnership in a counseling private practice.

A: We are working on defining various types of partnerships and the benefits of each with an attorney. We understand there are basically four types of agreements: PC, LLC, Subchapter S and Joint Venture (see the answer to the previous question). Each state has different rules on legal partnerships.

We are including two websites that may help you get started with your agreement. We are not attorneys, so an attorney knowledgeable about partnership laws regarding counseling practices in your state should be consulted.

Also see our “Private Practice Pointers” on the ACA website, where we have several bulletins, including ones on selling, buying and starting up a private practice. Hope this helps. Good luck with your counseling business.

If you are going to attend the ACA Convention in March, consider attending our preconference Learning Institute on private practice. Also stop by our Walsh and Dasenbrook Consulting booth at the Exposition Center and preview our book, The Complete Guide to Private Practice for Licensed Mental Health Professionals. We will also be in the Career Center throughout the conference. Hope to see you there!