Many therapists choose to offer the first counseling session to new clients free of charge. This practice is fairly common, but it’s not required. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether to charge clients for the initial therapy consultation.
If you’re an established therapist, you may have fewer concerns about income and find the decision to offer a free consultation an easy one. But if you’re just starting out in private practice, you might have some perfectly reasonable concerns about clients returning after the first session. Although you want to give potential clients a chance to meet you and see if you’re a good fit, you might worry the free consultation will harm your business.
However, free consultations may benefit your practice more often than not. Here, we’ll explain how.
What Happens in a Free Initial Consultation?
First, recognize that the initial consultation won’t take the same format as a typical therapy session. That’s part of what makes it so important. In this first session, potential clients have a chance to get to know more about you and your approach to therapy before they commit to working with you.
Deciding to see a therapist isn’t an easy choice for everyone. People seeking help often feel nervous about discussing the intense, serious emotional challenges they’re struggling with. Many aren’t entirely sure how therapy works. In either case, they’ll probably want to ask questions about the therapy process and how you can help them.
Some questions that often (and should) come up during consultation include:
- What do we do in therapy?
- Do the things I tell you stay private? (Here, you might explain the rare circumstances when you’re required to break confidentiality.)
- How long does therapy take?
- Do you have experience treating the issues I’m dealing with?
- Do you have availability that fits my schedule?
- How much do you charge per session?
In this consultation, potential clients should also give some details on the symptoms and issues they’re experiencing so you can get an idea of whether you’ll be able to help them.
Potential Benefits of a Free Initial Consultation
Offering a free consultation can help you as well as your client.
For one, you’re helping them develop a sense of trust, not only in you as a therapist, but also in the therapy process overall. A free consult suggests you have confidence in your work and your client’s ability to choose to continue with therapy. It also tells the client you want them to succeed and that you don’t want them to waste their money if they don’t feel quite right about you.
Without a strong therapeutic relationship, therapy may not have as much effect. You might struggle to help them effectively, and they might have trouble fully opening up to you. Because the success of therapy depends so much on your working relationship with your client, the connection you make really matters. It’s often possible to tell by the end of the consult if you can see yourself working well with a potential client. You may also be certain by the end of the consult that you aren’t the right therapist for them.
If you don’t see the two of you as a good therapeutic fit, for whatever reason, you’ll likely have an easier time saying so if you aren’t charging them. In this way, the consultation helps you avoid putting time and energy into emotionally draining or taxing sessions.
Many counselors choose to offer a free consultation because they feel it’s ethically dubious to charge someone for a session when they decide not to go forward in therapy with that person. Therapy can be expensive, especially when insurance doesn’t cover much (or any) of the cost. A free consultation can make therapy more accessible. People struggling to find the right therapist can take more time to consider and choose someone they feel really positive about working with, rather than simply going with the first therapist they find who treats their presenting concerns.
Potential Drawbacks of a Free Initial Consultation
Therapy is expensive. But experts suggest the cost of therapy may encourage some people to take it seriously and dedicate themselves to the work more thoroughly. Accordingly, for some people, a $0 price tag for a consultation may reduce the gravity of the process, and they may end up not returning. You might also end up seeing some people who hope to get free advice and aren’t ready to commit to therapy long-term.
If you’re trying to build up your practice, you may have a hard time turning a profit or even breaking even when you end up scheduling more than one no-cost consultation in a week. In this way, the free consult can be a gamble. If the potential clients don’t return to see you, you lose out on that income.
Alternatives to a Free Initial Consultation
Your time is valuable, and you have no obligation to offer a free session. However, because it’s so important to make sure you can actually help the people seeking your services, you may want to make yourself available to answer questions before the first session so you and your potential client can screen each other before you begin therapy.
A short telephone consult of 15 or 20 minutes may be helpful, but you might also choose to extend it free of charge when a client has more questions.
If you choose not to offer a free consultation, consider how you might provide detailed information to clients who want to know as much as possible about you before making an appointment. A good place to start is your website.
A well-designed private practice website should provide detailed information about:
- Your practice
- Your education and experience
- Your approach to therapy
- The types of people you usually work with (e.g. children, veterans, couples, and so on)
- Concerns you specialize in
In other words, your website should aim to answer most of the questions someone might ask during a consult. Then, when people seeking help call or email you, you can focus on exchanging information that helps determine whether you can work well together and develop a strong therapeutic relationship.
People may wonder about accessibility or simply want to know if they can feel comfortable in your office. Consider offering photos of your office (interior and exterior) on your website. A short virtual walkthrough video is also an option. You may also want to include a brief note on your website encouraging clients to call you with questions about disability or sensitivity accommodations before scheduling an appointment. This may help make it easier for people to bring up their needs and lets them know you’re mindful of accessibility concerns.
Finally, you might choose to charge a lower rate for the first session. If your typical session fee is $100, you might charge half this amount for the consultation. Another option is to charge for the consultation only if your client decides to pursue therapy with you.
There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s important to make a decision you feel good about, one that works for you and your practice. The success of your practice enables you to continue providing care.
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- Anderson, S. K., & Handelsman, M. M. J. (2013). A positive and proactive approach to the ethics of the first interview. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 43(1). Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10879-012-9219-3
- Guenther, J. (2018, September 16). A beginner’s guide to therapy. Part 2: What to ask in the consult. TherapyDen. Retrieved from https://www.therapyden.com/blog/a-beginners-guide-to-therapy-part-2-what-to-ask-in-the-consult
- Tilford, C. (2012, July 12). Stages of therapy: The free initial consultation. Retrieved from https://embracestrengthcounseling.com/stages-of-therapy-the-free-initial-consultation
- Why you should offer free initial counseling. (2013, November 19). TheraNest. Retrieved from https://theranest.com/blog/3-reasons-you-should-offer-free-initial-counseling-consultation