Launching a Successful Private Practice: Part 1: Clearing the Decks

By Karen James Chopra

If you have been dreaming of starting a private practice, your mental decks are probably cluttered with nagging fears, doubts and worries. Eliminating all fear and anxiety before starting something new isn't possible. But it is possible to put them into perspective so you can move forward. I have a thriving private practice in Washington, D.C. that is currently closed to new clients, and I still get 1-2 inquiries a week about my services. I know the demand exists for career counselors. I also know that counselors confront a number of common fears when establishing a private practice. Let's examine those fears in more detail.


I need more-- more training, experience, time, money, etc. You probably don't need more of anything. I started my private practice within a year of getting my counseling degree. There will always be something new to learn, and by definition you'll be more experienced if you wait another year. There is no magic formula that determines when you are ready to start a private practice. It's true, clients want information on experience and credentials, so be prepared to describe yours, but they are more interested in what you can do for them. Instead of focusing on what you don't have, identify what you offer that will meet your client's needs.

I'm not good at-- fill-in-the-blank (e.g. resumes, salary negotiations, career exploration, interview prep, your "favorite" fear). None of us is perfect at all aspects of career counseling, but we don't get better by avoiding our weaknesses. Nothing encourages the development of new skills more than a client who needs help. You won't know it all when you begin, but your clients will quickly help you work toward an advanced degree. Don't forget, you also have the basic tools of our profession for addressing weak spots: continuing education, supervision and consultation. Just because you will be a solo practitioner doesn't mean you will be isolated from the wisdom of colleagues.

I'm not a business person. Neither am I. Learning how to launch and manage a small business is something that you can master. Start by using a tool we all know: information interviews. Call career counselors and interview them about how they handle the business side of their private practice, from setting fees to cancellation policies to informed consent. Ask how they find clients, and what their most successful tactics have been. Solicit their advice on what they would do differently. For me, the business entails a credit card and checking account, a computer program like Quicken to track expenses, an accountant to do my taxes, a credit card machine, a web designer to update my website, and an office to rent. If I can run a business, anyone can.

I don't know how to get clients. Your clients are out there, you just need to find them. The first step is defining the type of clients you are looking for. A helpful exercise is one I call "The Waiting Room." Imagine your waiting room is full of clients with only questions and problems that you enjoy tackling. What are they? What type of issues are the clients confronting? Also ask yourself what types of questions and problems are not sitting in your waiting room. For example, I want a waiting room full of people who have no idea what they want to do next, but are willing to try to find it. I don't want a waiting room full of people who need a resume by tomorrow. So my website might ask "Want help finding work you love?" rather than "Want help writing the perfect resume?" Next, imagine that all the clients in the waiting room want from you only the things you love to do. I call this exercise "Only the Cream," because we are skimming off only the best parts. What constitutes the cream of career counseling work to you?

Once you have identified the types of clients you prefer to work with, and the types of services you most want to offer, you know where to find your clients. If you imagine a waiting room full of young adults just starting their careers and looking for coaching on how to navigate their first job, you would talk to college counseling centers, and network to find parents of college-age kids. You might team up with a local bar to offer a monthly "networking night" for their young patrons, or identify a company that hires large numbers of college graduates and propose to do in-house training or coaching.

I'm afraid of marketing. The fear of expensive ads, empty waiting rooms or degrading car salesman-like behavior stops many counselors in their tracks. It's important to let go of those misconceptions. Marketing in the counseling world should never be a hard sell. If you do it right, there will be very little selling of any type. The trick is to find the sweet spot: the place where you are excited and energized by what you are doing. Once you have found the sweet spot, you won't be able to stop yourself from talking about what you love. That energy and enthusiasm will attract clients to you. In turn, those clients will be delighted they have found you, and will pass your name around like the latest fashion tip. There are ways to help this process along, and I'll write more about how to market your practice next month, in an article on "Helping Clients Choose You."

Dream, then Act

If your dream is a thriving private practice, let yourself imagine the unique practice that you will love. Imagine every detail, from the clients to the waiting room. Once you see that vision clearly, you will be able to take off in the direction of your dream.

Next month: Helping Clients Choose You: Tools for Building Successful Relationships



Karen James Chopra, LPC, MCC, NCC, has a flourishing career counseling practice in Washington, D.C. She has also worked in the outplacement industry for Lee Hecht Harrison and Resource Careers, and was a regular guest commentator on a local radio show "Your Career Life." Recently, she has filmed several career "how to" videos for MonkeySee.com. Her website is http://www.chopracareers.com/, and her email address is: Karen@ChopraCareers.com .

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