In the life coaching profession, only very rarely do issues of legal culpability come up. One such case was reported at the beginning of this month when ICF members were informed of a legal case involving a life coach in Virginia. You can read more about it here.

Three things stand out to me from this case.

First, it affirms from a legal stand point that coaches stand apart from medical care and other so-called “helping professions.” David Matthew Prior, MCC, MBA, co-chair ICF Ethics and Standards Committee talks about this in his “Professional Coaching Language for Greater Public Understanding.” He suggests that in order to affirm the distinction that coaches are not involved in medical care or any of the “helping professions,” coaches should avoid using medical terms like “practice” and “intake”. He suggests that instead we use terms like coaching “business”, “initial” or “discovery” session, and “welcome” packets.

Second, it means that it’s a good idea to have a contract or letter of agreement in place before you begin coaching. This coach was in the third session with the client when the incident that let to the suit happened.

Although you should talk to a legal expert about specifics, in addition to statements about sessions and payment, a coaching contract or letter of agreement should include a statement that identifies what coaching is and isn’t. In addition, include a clause about confidentiality and under what circumstances the coach will break confidentiality. Put this in writing clearly before you begin working together. That way both of you start out with the same understanding and expectations of how you will work together as client and coach.

And finally, I think this recent event also makes a case for training. One of the claims in the suit was about negligence because the coach had no training or knowledge to competently counsel the client. The coach in question had no formal training but was under the supervision of the staff of the clinic where she was employed. Whether or not we debate the statement that the coach was “counseling” the client, I think it is conceivable that with proper training the coach might have been able to avoid this situation all together.

We are blessed to be able to do our work in a field that almost entirely avoids these legal conflicts. But when the occasional case shows up, it reminds us that we do need to conduct ourselves with impeccable professionalism. Get trained and participate in continuing education. Use a good contract. And always put your client first.

All my best,
Sarah Wright
President, ADHD Coaches Organization, Inc.