Coaching Legal Considerations: The Pitfalls of Operating Outside the Scope of Practice

August 25, 2022 by Lauren Gombas

Disclaimer: The following article does NOT constitute legal advice or replace any legal advice from a lawyer or professional legal entity. The following article is for educational purposes, and readers should consult legal counsel if they wish to obtain legal guidance. 

Within and Outside of the Scope of Coaching

Coaching as a distinct profession aims to empower the client through powerful questions that ignite insights and create powerful learning. Coaches work parallel to clients, encouraging them to take action and achieve goals.

Coaching Legal Considerations

Within coaching, practitioners:

  • Use listening skills to generate empathy 
  • Trust the client to be an expert in their own lives
  • Refrain from advising or making decisions for the client
  • Use exercises and models to empower growth
  • Help the client decide on goals
  • Guide the client on creating actionable steps
  • Hold the client accountable

Because there is some overlap between coaching and other professions, it’s important for coaches to ensure that they remain within their scope of practice. In addition, coaches who attempt to practice outside of the coaching scope, such as a coach who attempts to provide nutrition counseling, can face legal ramifications, which vary by state.  Even if the coach holds a license in a particular field, it is not appropriate for the coach to switch off coaching ethics and competencies mid-session. 

For example, Marnie is both a Professional Certified Coach and a Licensed Professional Counselor who practices primarily as a Wellness Coach. During a coaching session, Marnie’s client, Iris, mentions a few symptoms that align with the symptomology of depression. Marnie’s instincts are to provide Iris with a depression assessment and determine the extent of Iris’s depression. However, the coaching agreement she made with Iris does not mention her ability to provide counseling services, and the two never spoke about Marnie’s licensure as a professional counselor. In this case, Marnie’s best course of action would be to refer Iris to a counselor for an assessment, rather than attempting to do the assessment herself. Doing so could result in legal ramifications, as Marnie’s coaching business carries different liability insurance than her counseling practice. 

Coaching vs. Psychology/Counseling

Although part of the helping profession, coaches are not trained to handle major mental health and behavioral problems. Coaches should never attempt to diagnose or “treat” a mental health disorder, as this could have debilitating consequences for the client. Coaches who are not equipped to handle psychological issues are more likely to cause additional damage or even heighten the issues the client is facing.

For example, a coach out of Utah attracted large audiences as a speaker and coach who helped people “say goodbye to depression.” In addition, she offered couples coaching and counseling in more one-on-one settings. For one couple, she went as far as creating an alcohol abuse treatment plan. All of these activities required a professional license in counseling or psychology, which the coach did not have. Consequently, she was charged with five separate felony counts of practicing without a license.

Coaching vs. Medical Professions

Since health and wellness coaching are closely tied to medical fields, health and wellness coaches may need to take the most precaution. Health and Wellness coaches need to understand aspects such as the Illness Wellness Continuum or information on diabetes to relate to their clients. However, a coach giving a nutrition plan, taking blood pressure, or carrying out a nursing task could be liable. Likewise, health and wellness coaches or any coach who doesn't also have the proper medical licensing or credentialing should never diagnose, prescribe, or treat mental or physical ailments. Instead, health and wellness coaches can support their clients by helping them follow a pre-prescribed plan from a medical licensed professional. 

What Coaches Should Consider when Determining if they are Within Scope of Practice 

If a coach doesn’t know if they are practicing within coaching, they can ask themselves: 

  • Am I advising or coaching? 
  • Am I allowing the client to take the lead or acting as the specialist?
  • If I make a suggestion, what could come out of it?
  • Am I the best informed on the client's situation? 
  • Is the client receiving the right services from a licensed professional (when needed)? If not, then how can I refer to them?
  • If I am a medical practitioner and a coach, how do I let my client know when I’m practicing as a coach vs. a medical professional?

Legal Considerations

Before starting sessions, it’s important to not only discuss what falls within your scope of practice, but what your client expects to get out of the coaching relationship, as well. This can highlight any potential expectations that you may not be able to meet given the scope of the coaching relationship. Addressing these concerns up front before coaching begins is the best way to avoid stepping outside the bounds of coaching later on in the coaching relationship. 

In addition to discussing all of this information during the first session, everything should be provided in writing in the form of a written contract or coaching agreement. This is the best way for a coach to protect themselves from legal disputes. The ICF offers a sample coaching agreement that includes information about the coaching relationship, services, fees, procedures, and confidentiality, as a reminder that clients are responsible for their choices and actions resulting from coaching. Therefore, we recommend a disclaimer or contract written by a lawyer.

Whether speaking with a client or exchanging information in a written format, coaches need to be mindful of language use, credentials, and titles. For example, coaches should review all written documents for key phrasing on things like “guarantees” or “expected outcomes” to ensure they are not making promises they can’t keep or applying inappropriate language to the content of their documentation. Certificates & titles, too, could have meaning in other industries, and coaches never want to use a title that requires additional licensing unless they hold that specific license (example: social worker). 

Confidentiality Considerations

As a professional entrusted with private information, coaches maintain an obligation to keep a level of confidentiality and stay within the ICF Code of Ethics. For health coaches, these requirements extend to the Health Board Code of Ethics. Keeping client materials and interactions secure includes appropriately storing or disposing of any materials created for or by the client. In certain situations, however, such as court-ordered mandates or in the case of a client disclosing intent to harm themselves or others, it may be necessary to release client information to qualified individuals. 

Additional Work

Pursuing an ICF-certified and approved program such as Coach Training EDU's life coaching programs can help coaches clarify expectations and coaching’s scope of practice. Receiving a credential sets up a standard for the coach, which includes continuing education courses to keep up to date on the industry. In addition, we recommend that coaches partner with a counselor or therapist with whom they can exchange appropriate ideas and ask about potential boundaries. In addition to therapists and counselors, there are a variety of other topics for which you may want to refer to a more qualified or knowledgeable professional, such as a financial advisor or an attorney. Often, these referrals are necessary because the client is looking for more direct advice rather than the guidance of a coach. This doesn’t mean that your coaching relationship needs to end, only that you may not be able to provide the answers your client is looking for. 

This article is only a brief introduction into the world of legal considerations for coaches. Doing the work to identify the laws and regulations that govern coaching in your own state should be the next step. Often, it’s best to hire an attorney to help navigate the waters of legal considerations in coaching. 

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