The growth of the life coach industry has raised many questions about whether life coaches are providing counseling services that require a license. In short, some counseling requires a license but other counseling does not. On the spectrum of counseling services provided, the edges are black and white, but in the middle is a blurry line.
Most states have laws that govern professional counseling. These laws are sometimes referred to as state Counseling Practice Acts. These laws generally require a person providing professional counseling to have specific credentials (e.g. education in the field), obtain the appropriate license, and maintain ongoing registration in the state where the individual is providing professional counseling services.
Recently, people have debated the distinctions between psychotherapy vs. coaching, the difference between counseling and life coaching, and whether life coaching is an end-run around Counseling Practice Acts. From a legal perspective, we must examine the text of the law.
Marriage and Family Counseling
In Minnesota, like most states, no individual may engage in marriage and family therapy practice unless that individual holds a valid license. Likewise, no individual may be held out to be a marriage and family therapist unless that individual holds a valid license. Violations are a gross misdemeanor. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.32.
Under this law, “marriage and family therapy” means the process of providing professional marriage and family psychotherapy to individuals, married couples, and family groups, either singly or in groups. The practice of marriage and family therapy utilizes established principles that recognize the interrelated nature of the individual problems and dysfunctions in family members to assess, understand, and treat emotional and mental problems. Marriage and family therapy includes premarital, marital, divorce, and family therapy, and is a specialized mode of treatment for the purpose of resolving emotional problems and modifying intrapersonal and interpersonal dysfunction. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.29, subdiv. 3.
Licensed Professional Counseling
In Minnesota, like most states, no individual may engage in the practice of licensed professional counseling unless that individual holds a valid license or is exempt from licensure requirements. Likewise, no individual may be presented to the public by any title or practice incorporating the words “licensed professional counselor” or “LPC” unless that individual holds a valid license. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.591.
Under this law, “licensed professional counseling” means the application of counseling, human development, and mental health research, principles, and procedures to maintain and enhance the mental health, development, personal and interpersonal effectiveness, and adjustment to work and life of individuals and families. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.50, subdiv. 4.
The scope of practice of a “licensed professional counselor” includes, but is not limited to:
- the implementation of professional counseling treatment interventions (the application of cognitive, affective, behavioral, systemic, and community counseling strategies which include principles of human development, wellness, and pathology; counselors provide mental health services for clients whose symptoms significantly interfere with daily functioning and would most likely not improve in a reasonable time period without intervention) including evaluation, treatment planning, assessment, and referral;
- direct counseling services to individuals, groups, and families;
- counseling strategies that effectively respond to multicultural populations;
- knowledge of relevant laws and ethics impacting practice;
- crisis intervention;
- consultation; and
- program evaluation and applied research.
These laws do not prohibit licensed professionals in other fields from counseling within their fields. This includes
- licensed physicians,
- registered nurses,
- licensed practical nurses,
- licensed psychologists,
- probation officers,
- social workers,
- marriage and family therapists,
- qualified rehabilitation consultants,
- natural family planning practitioners certified by the American Academy of Natural Family Planning, and
- registered occupational therapists or certified occupational therapist assistants.
See Minn. Stat. § 148B.592, subdiv. 1.
There is an exception for unlicensed complementary and alternative health care practitioners. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.592, subdiv. 4.
There is an exception for licensed professionals from other states. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.592, subdiv. 5.
There is an exception for the clergy—rabbi, priest, minister, or clergyperson of any religious denomination or sect, provided such activities and services are within the scope of the performance of regular or specialized ministerial duties. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.592, subdiv. 6.
There is an exception for nonprofit organizations—people offering volunteer or professional services for public or private nonprofit organizations or charities. See Minn. Stat. § 148B.592, subdiv. 7.
Life Coach Disclaimer
While a disclaimer doesn’t prevent violating the law, it can help. For example, here is a sample disclaimer for a life coach:
Disclaimer: We do not provide clinical diagnosis, medication prescriptions, or other regulated healthcare services. Our services are not a replacement for clinical therapy from a licensed therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other board-certified healthcare professional.
Of course, this disclaimer should be customized by an attorney for (1) the unique circumstances of each life coach and (2) compliance with local state laws.
Keep in mind, a disclaimer won’t do much good if (1) the life coach’s website offers services that require a license or (2) the life coach actually provides services that require a license. Put another way, a disclaimer that says someone won’t do something illegal doesn’t protect someone who does something illegal.
While state law is clear that some counseling services require a license, this doesn’t apply to all counseling services. Thus, whether a life coach needs a license in Minnesota depends on the type of counseling services the life coach is providing. A life coach can certainly provide counseling services legally as long as the life coach avoids counseling in areas that require a license.