It’s an obvious assertion: health coaches help people achieve better health. We guide people’s transformations by helping them make new choices—better choices for their daily well-being. To accomplish this, we provide education. We talk about how our bodies work, how metabolism operates, how different lifestyle choices elicit different physiological responses. We demonstrate physical exercises, talk about and, in some cases, correct form. We discuss how everyday shifts may support their efforts to manage or dial back chronic health concerns. Out of concern for our clients, we’re careful to not supplant, contradict or supersede their physicians’ advice. We’re champions of our clients’ journeys but not directors of their health care. In these ways, we understand our roles professionally, but how can we make sure we’re abiding by them legally?
Before we begin, it’s important to say this post does not constitute legal advice for your individual practice. Within the health coaching community, we all have differing credentials. We operate in different functions. We serve clients in different parts of the country—or even world. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive guide for all potential legal issues that may come up in your coaching practice. Nor is it a template for all necessary legal planning or decision-making. In reality, no single article could accomplish that formidable task with any degree of accuracy or totality.
What we can do, however, is offer some key considerations as you design, set up and implement your coaching practice. Think of these as starting points for exploring the legal responsibilities, parameters and protections for your business.
1. Hire a lawyer.
Given the expense, it’s tempting to skip this step, but don’t. You don’t need to put this person on long-term retainer, but find a reputable lawyer who has experience working with the private coaching field and set up a consultation.
Share your website copy, social media company descriptions, client contracts and any other paperwork with him/her. You’ll save time and money if you do your homework first and try to fit your language within the parameters you find in informational resources. We’ll cover a bit of that here, but a lawyer will have specific guidance for you.
It’s worth incurring the upfront costs to have a lawyer give your marketing and contract materials a solid once-over. Consider it an inevitable cost of doing business. Beyond these beginning services, ask if you can continue the relationship without the outlay of a significant (or any) retainer. Some will agree after they’ve worked with a client through that initial business review.
2. Define your role with clear and client-centered terms.
You operate as a health coach, which means you offer education and support. If you have additional credentials in the nutrition or fitness fields, look at the language of those certifications. Be aware that “advice” is viewed differently from a legal standpoint than support or education is. (In some states and fields, the term education can even raise legal red flags.) Diagnosis, counseling and treatment are among the terms that carry specific legal weight and are generally reserved for certain licensed professionals.
This is where being client-centered in your language as well as your methodology can serve you. “We are here to help clients discern and focus their desired wellness goals and to support and organize client efforts to those aims.” Staying client-centered in your business descriptions and paperwork as well as your client conversations helps you circumvent many service-focused issues. Still, even in these cases, it’s best to get the final okay from a lawyer.
3. Know your state’s laws regarding nutrition counseling and fitness training.
Each state has the authority to define its own scope and terms that apply to health related professionals within its jurisdiction. For those coaches who provide online (or in-person) health coaching to clients in other locations, it’s critical to know these legal parameters in all states that your practice extends to.
Nutrition, in particular, is an especially tricky field to claim within your professional offerings. Again, client-centered language can help, but it’s critical to know the specific laws in your state(s) of practice.
The personal training field will likely feel a similar regulatory crunch in years to come, and all coaches who claim to offer fitness training services should be in regular contact with state regulatory and licensing agencies.
4. Apply a disclaimer.
Offer a lawyer-approved disclaimer on your website, social media accounts and business materials. No matter how small your coaching practice or how close you feel you are to your clients, it’s essential to include a written disclaimer on your website, client agreements and all marketing/programming materials.
A disclaimer both disclaims liability and delineates your services. It offers both parties clarity around what you do and don’t do, and it situates responsibility of outcomes with the client. This is a standard and critical legal protection you must offer yourself. Spare yourself legal risk by having a qualified attorney familiar with the private coaching field draw up your disclaimer.
5. Establish and publish terms and conditions.
As a professional, you can give thought to what boundaries you’d like to place around your work, time and payment, etc.. Write down terms and conditions you think you’d like to implement, but then let a lawyer have the final say. He/she will likely revise wording to fit legal standards and may have ideas for expanding or otherwise shifting these legal parameters.
6. Use personalized, written client agreements.
Finally, personalized client agreements constitute both effective coaching practice and important legal protection. Have a standard (and lawyer approved) agreement template that you customize for each client based on what services that client is hiring you for.
Consider it a point of clarity for your work together. The client understands what is expected of him/her, and you’re both clear on what you’ll be offering in terms of time, investment, products, and support. If questions or confusion arise at some point in the coaching relationship, you each have a personalized, written contract to refer to. In the event that any client would pursue legal action against your business, you have expectations and terms pre-established.
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