How to Start Your Private Practice

Whether you’re newly qualified or have been working in an agency setting for some time, starting your own therapy private practice can feel daunting. There can be a sense of pressure from working alone but also practically – suddenly needing to navigate business processes that previously may have been handled by colleagues.

Like with any goal, breaking it down into smaller tasks can make it feel more manageable. So we’ve created this comprehensive guide to getting your counselling and psychotherapy private practice going – from the anxiety of going it alone to the necessary steps you need to take.

To explore the importance of self-care in the context of trauma work, see our online training course: The Well-Resourced Therapist.

How to start your private practice

Image of a plant, phone, notebook, pencil, glasses and the edges of a laptop. Therapy private practice is achievable if you get organised.

Starting your private practice can feel daunting but with planning and tackling it task-by-task you’ll get there.

Private Practice: don’t do it alone; get support

Whenever we do anything challenging in life it can feel reassuring and confidence-boosting to have people to turn to to help navigate this change and all the feelings that can come with it. Your first port of call will likely be your supervisor, who as well as supporting your clinical practice can also give guidance on what to expect in private practice. Talking through the decision to work privately with them can help in itself, as they will know you and your work, and can hopefully share their faith in you – and also share any challenges they may anticipate for you.

Peer support can also be vital. You may have friends from your training or from your workplace who are in the same position or have gone through it before. If you lack that in-real-life support don’t fear, you can also join one of the growing number of support networks springing up for therapists in private practice in the form of Facebook groups. Brighton Therapy Partnership has it’s own called The Therapy Partnership, but there are others. Whether you post within the groups or set up an external mini support or accountability group, you don’t have to feel on your own as you venture into private practice.

Working in Brighton and Hove?

If you’re in Brighton and Hove you also have the option of joining our group practice. Being part of The Palmeira Practice is an ideal way to step into private practice – whether you’re renting our therapy rooms or joining as an Associate Member. You can benefit from referrals, marketing support, SEO and profile raising, discounted CPD but also crucially – a sense of holding and support from our team. There’s even a Reserve Scheme, specially designed to help counsellors and psychotherapists who are new to private practice – with support to ease into independent private practice and reduced room hire costs for the first 18 months of your membership with us.

Resources on setting up in private practice

We’re hoping this blogpost will give you a good sense of what’s needed to set up, but we also know we can’t go into depth on every subject. There are some some great resources to help navigate setting up in private practice – from practical concerns to feelings around impostor syndrome. The BACP Learning Centre (available to members) has video training on business skills, marketing and common challenges. Jane Travis’ book Grow Your Private Practice is also a great resource to increase your understanding of what’s required and to boost your confidence. She also has a blog with heaps of free resources on setting up and growing your private practice.

> Read our blogpost on useful skills for counsellors and psychotherapists

Make Your Private Practice Checklist

Because we all love a to-do list! Seriously though, there are some things that will be necessary for setting up in private practice and others you might like to do.

Some of the core steps needed may be:

  • Ensure you have a supervisor able to support work in private practice
  • Find a room to practise from, and/or ensure you have appropriate training and a private space suitable for you to work online
  • Get your insurance
  • Ensure your professional membership is up-to-date
  • Register with the ICO and pay your data protection fee
  • Register as self-employed (and let the Student Loans Company know you have done so if you are repaying a loan from them)
  • Prepare your client contract or agreement
  • Have a third party payment agreement ready, for those instances where a client’s family member/partner/friend is paying. This outlines payment terms but also confidentiality, ie just because someone is paying for a client’s therapy it doesn’t mean they get access to session content or updates.
  • Create your clinical will. This isn’t something that’s talked about a lot but it’s essential for all therapists regardless of your age or health status. A clinical will is an agreed plan for who would contact your clients should you need to cancel sessions and aren’t able to do so yourself, such as in the event of an accident or serious illness, but also if you were to die – who would notify clients and what would happen to your records.
  • Ensure you personalise your voicemail, so if you have any client enquiries they know they are getting through to the right person and feel comfortable to then leave a message.
  • Set up a pension.
Image of three women sat around a table with laptops and notebooks.

Having peer support can make a big difference in tackling nerves around private practice but also the isolation that can come from lone-working.

In terms of marketing, you may consider the following:

Directories: Directories are usually the best place to start advertising. Psychology Today currently offer a free 6-month trial and Counselling Directory give members codes – one of your peers may be able to give you one so your second month is free. You may also consider joining your membership organisation’s directory, or others such as Pink Therapy (counsellors working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversities), BAATN (Black, African and Asian Therapy Network) or MCAPN (Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network)

Ensure your photo feels warm and approachable (you can check this with friends) – we might deal with serious things as therapists but a smile to start with goes a long way, as does having an uncluttered background. Then with what you write, try to get across how you work, the kind of issues you specialise in and who you are as a therapist. Your introductory paragraph that may be seen when browsing the listings is especially important for this – you don’t want to say the same as everyone else is saying. What makes therapy with you special? Are there areas you have specialist experience or training in?

Website: It’s easier than you think to build a website, with sites like WordPress (here’s a handy step-by-step guide), Squarespace, Wix and GoDaddy having user-friendly and intuitive interfaces that allow you to create a simple but professional looking website outlining what you offer. If this feels beyond your capacities there are people who can create a basic website for you for a reasonable cost. If you ask in therapy Facebook groups such as those we listed at the start of this blogpost many will have recommendations – so you know you won’t be getting ripped off.

As well as building the website you’ll also want to consider SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) – there’s plenty online for you to read about this, but again you can also pay someone to work their tech magic for you if this doesn’t feel like something you can navigate.

Google MyBusiness: If you have a room that you practice from, you can list your practice and quite literally put yourself on the map. This is a free service that is well worth doing. Don’t worry if you’re working from home, whether in-person or online, you can also list the area that you work in.

Social media: Many therapists get by just fine with the above points, so don’t feel you have to be on social media if it’s not something you’re comfortable with. That said, if you are savvy with social media then it can be helpful to have an online presence in this way. The most common platforms are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and it’s worth considering which of these feel the most natural fit for you – and also where your ideal clients may be. Whichever you choose though, ensure you are posting regular engaging content (such as relevant articles, graphics, quotes, local information etc) as an inactive page or one with infrequent posts is going to struggle to reach many potential clients – not just because of frequency but due to how the algorithm works. For more information on the main social media platforms and how you might best use them, have a read of our blogpost on Social Media for Counsellors – Dos and Don’ts.

Business cards and flyers: Business cards can be given to fellow counsellors, to pass onto clients needing a suggestion for someone they know, and also to family and friends (for them to pass on). We need to keep to boundaries – not working with those who have a close link to our life, but there will be distant friends and acquaintances of those we know who we could work with. Flyers can be left on local Costa or other coffee shops’ community boards, or you can ask if your local hairdresser can keep some for example. Again, there are online tools which make these very easy to make and to look professional.

Image from Netflix drama Gypsy - an example of poor boundaries in therapy.

Watching dramas like Gypsy on Netflix can feel like playing Bad Boundaries Bingo. We won’t be able to work with close friends of our friends or family, but we can still share our private practice with our wider network.

Done is better than perfect

The above potential marketing checklist might feel daunting. You may feel you have to tick each of these off before your private practice is “open”, but that’s not the case. When you’re ready to start seeing private clients, get those crucial tasks sorted (and many of them may be already), and get your directory profile set-up. Once that’s live, you’re good to go. The likelihood is you won’t be snowed under straight away. So, you have time to then set up your website, social media profiles etc.

You may even find that by being on one or two directories, and with peer recommendations, you don’t need to build a website or have an active social media presence. This would be the ideal – you don’t want to create extra work for yourself, and we’re also aware that people will have different sized private practices, which will require varying amounts of marketing.

You could also spend 6 weeks tinkering with your profile until it feels perfect, or taking multiple photos and not feeling satisfied with any of them. Here is where “done is better than perfect” comes in.

It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any. – Hugh Laurie

So yes, take your time with your profile so it reflects who you are, how you work and your experience – but don’t then delay completing it out of fear it’s “not right”. You can read all the books and articles you want but it’s ultimately often going to be trial and error. You also won’t appeal to every client and that’s ok. It can be helpful to get a peer or your supervisor to look over your profile, but also a friend or family member who isn’t in the counselling profession so they can tell you if you’re speaking in jargon they wouldn’t understand as a potential client.

A work-in-progress

And even when you’re done, you’re probably not really done – sorry! Most likely your contract will change over time, as will your directory profiles. That’s another good reason to not agonise over them – they won’t be set in stone anyhow.

Updating your directory profiles and website is also important for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) – you want to have “fresh” content so putting a date in your diary to review your listings can be helpful. This can be as simple as amending how you phrase your bio, but you may also want to create blogposts for example.

Are your barriers real?

Sometimes, it won’t be the right time in life to venture into private practice. Other times, you might read items on the above list and think this will exclude you – when that might not be the case. If you don’t have the time or money to build a website, maybe don’t build a website – or use something like about.me to create something super simple but effective. You may also dream of a garden room to work from, but this takes time and money that you may not have – though a local therapy centre may have availability for you to start right away.

That said, there are upfront costs and also income can be unpredictable – with clients finishing, taking holiday or with illness. It’s sensible to ease into private practice, ie while still continuing with another job, or to build up savings that provide a safety net for quieter months. Don’t forget to factor in your own annual leave too. Some local governments have business support including grants and loans so this may be something to look into if you need support in getting started.

Image of someone on a zoom call, with a notebook open in front of them.

Working online means, once sufficiently trained, you can get started straight away. It also makes therapy more accessible for many clients

Tell people you have space for clients

We’ve talked about more formal marketing but don’t forget to also tell your supervisor, peers, past tutors and anyone else you can think of that you are moving into private practice and have space to see clients. Again, therapy Facebook groups can be great way to network with those looking to make referrals – especially with online counselling meaning we can see clients anywhere. Equally you might be in Facebook groups for your local community – you can post about your practice here, though it’s often helpful to share useful content and contribute in other ways too.

Ensuring access and inclusion in your therapy practice

Like with any business, access and inclusion is something we should be thinking about from the beginning. This includes access considerations in the room, but also any paperwork and anything you’re putting out online.

Asking clients about any health conditions they have during the initial consultation can be an important first step. This is part of getting to know the person but can also be a safety factor – knowing what to do if someone experiences symptoms such as fainting. We can also ask all clients if they have any access needs, and if there is anything you can do to make therapy more accessible to them, and then be willing to follow through on that.

A few ways we may make our practice more accessible, depending on client needs, are:

  • Having an accessible room. Even if your main room isn’t ground floor or wheelchair accessible, can you find an option for when this is needed? Sometimes this means looking outside of typical therapy spaces and considering private rooms in libraries, community centres, etc.
  • Offering sessions shorter than 50 minutes. We get taught this is how we work but there will be clients with fatigue or vocal issues where this won’t be plausible.
  • If we are able, having a more accommodating cancellation policy for clients with chronic illness – whether not charging in the usual way, or being willing to reschedule or offer a Zoom/phone session
  • Understanding that for clients with executive dysfunction (whether stemming from mental health difficulties, a chronic illness or neurodivergence such as those with ADHD) they may need reminders around payment, and not being punitive around this.
  • Various practical considerations like not using room scents or strong perfume, having a fan in summer and a heater in the winter and asking about the lighting levels in the room.

>> Join us in September for an online live CPD day on Working with Autism in Counselling and Psychotherapy

Inclusion isn’t just about disability, it’s considering various diverse and intersecting identities, how much knowledge we hold and how accepting we are. Gender identity is another example of where we need to examine our biases and our practices. One way of being more inclusive is to list our own pronouns on our profiles and to include space for the client’s pronouns on your personal details form.

Image of two hands clenched into fists, with the letters LGBTQIA+ written onto each finger in rainbow colours.

Do you understand what it means to identify as LGBTQIA+? We need to ensure inclusion for all clients and that includes improving our knowledge.

If you’re genuinely accepting (including being non-pathologising, ie not analysing the reason behind someone being trans) and have understanding and experience around working with gender, sexual and relationship diverse clients it’s worth stating this. You could include a line on your profile about being LGBTQIA+ friendly. Having this identity acknowledged can feel reassuring to many clients, who may have had negative experiences in therapy or come to expect them given other experiences.

We can be wary of self-disclosure in therapy but if you’re from a marginalised community yourself it can be helpful, if you feel comfortable doing so, to share this on your directory profiles and website. Clients who are disabled or have a chronic illness, or are LGBTQIA+, may feel safer seeing a therapist who identifies in the same way.

Finding your therapy niche?

There’s a question mark there because having a niche, helpful as it can be for business, won’t make sense for everyone. If you’ve done a specialist placement or work, such as around sexual abuse, talking about this can be really important for clients to feel safe in coming to you. If your work has been more general so far, seeing clients with a range of issues – it can be hard to find a niche and may not always be appropriate. In this case ensuring you are expressing well how you work as a therapist and giving a sense of your personality can be more important.

As we grow in experience we may develop further interests, attend additional training or even find that certain client groups are being drawn to us (potentially because of a shared identity, as mentioned above). So if you’re just starting out and don’t have a niche – don’t worry. It may be something that develops over time. But if you do have that specalised experience – sell it. This won’t narrow your practice, you may still get clients with all kinds of issues from all backgrounds, but it will help you stand out and reach those clients that you’re best placed to help.

Regular admin dates

It’s not an exciting date in the diary to have but scheduling when you’ll do your admin means it won’t get forgotten. Once a month updating your client hours, CPD log, income and expenses means you won’t find yourself with a mountain of work when it comes to needing this information.

Dealing with nerves

Image of someone in a harness attached to a parachute, with a view of mountains and the sun setting.

Private practice might be one of those things in life where you have to “feel the fear and do it anyway”, as Susan Jeffers would say. With experience, anxiety will settle but it’s also something that can be managed.

Setting up in private practice isn’t all about practical steps, we know there can also be a huge amount of trepidation and anxiety. This can delay you setting up the practice in itself but can also feel hard to handle even when you’re up and running. Being “out in the world” a sense of impostor syndrome can kick in making you question yourself. Remember though, your supervisor has faith in you – as did your tutors and assessors who qualified you, and most likely your peers too. One quote that’s reassuring to come back to when doubting yourself or your level of experience is this:

It’s not therapists with with power who help, but therapists with heart – Carolyn Spring

When you’re in that place of feeling deskilled, it can be helpful to remind yourself that clients will most likely just value being truly heard and empathised with. Come back to the basics – you can be there with another person. All those skills and theories you’ve learned will be there, embedded within you, so don’t worry about that – if you’re dealing with anxiety just remind yourself of the power of “heart”, presence and relationship.

If anxiety is a problem for you when you’re seeing clients, you can find ways to regulate – doing some deep breaths (ie breathe in for 5, hold for 3, out for 8), grounding yourself and also talking to yourself with compassion – that you’re nervous because you care, and that’s ok, but you’ve got this. A helpful exercise might also to be to make a list of the clients you’ve seen and the impact of therapy on them. You may have doubted your skills then but did the clients make progress? Did they find the therapy beneficial?

Identify learning needs

As you anticipate starting private practice, or even when you’re up and running, it can be helpful to make a list of your learning needs and any gaps in your knowledge. As we’ve just been talking about impostor syndrome, a reminder – once you’re qualified, you’re qualified. Still, there may be areas you feel you need to increase your learning to work safely with clients. There also might be areas you’re just interested in from a personal viewpoint. “Identifying learning needs” can sound dry but we all know that a good therapy CPD day can feel really invigorating.

>> Browse our upcoming online CPD days or view our video library on Therapy Education Online (ThEO) with courses on trauma, attachment, neurodiversity and more – including a course on “Working with Adolescents in Private Practice”.

Have patience

Once you’ve finally made the leap and got your directory profiles and website live, it can feel really exciting. It’s almost like waiting for the doorbell to ring when you order a takeaway – you’re ready for it, and yet… it might not happen. Not for a while anyway. It can take time for enquiries to come in and that’s ok and very much normal.

Image of a dog looking fed up with their head resting on the floor.

Waiting for your phone to ring, or your email to ping, can feel tough but is very much a part of the process and not a reason to panic. If a lot of time is passing you can work on your marketing in the ways we’ve described.

You may have other work alongside your private practice, but if not you can use this time to work on your marketing, complete more CPD or even just enjoy some downtime before the clients start booking in. Have faith – you’ll get there.

Self care while setting up your private practice

Any new life change can feel draining, even if it’s a good one. So factor that in when you’re starting private practice. If you have a lot of other stress going on in your life, it may not be the best timing – or, it could be something you can pour yourself into (or take a tentative step, whatever works for you) and get a lot from. Only you, perhaps with the guidance from your supervisor, will know if this is the right time for you. Even if otherwise life feels pretty smooth, factor in some downtime to look after yourself however suits you best.

As you build up your practice you’ll also get a sense of when are the best times for you to work and also how you feel with varying levels of clients. Just because some therapists see 20 clients a week, it doesn’t mean that’s something you have to aim for. See what works for you. Even if you’re seeing one or two clients a week, you should feel so proud of that. It’s not about quantity so remember you will impact on each client you see, and this may ripple out into others in their life.

If you found this blogpost helpful please share it with your peers. You can also add your own tips in the comments.

Upcoming training

Working in Brighton and Hove?

If you’re living in Brighton and Hove, or the surrounding areas, and looking to start your private practice – one option is joining The Palmeira Practice, whether using our therapy rooms or as an Associate Member.

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  1. Zoliswa on 2023-10-05 at 5:18 PM

    Thank you so much for this blog. It is very helpful as I am preparing to start my private practise. I am in South Africa

    • Shelley Holland on 2023-10-06 at 9:19 AM

      Thank you, it’s so lovely to hear this, good luck with your private practice!

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