No one wants to end up on the wrong side of the law. Getting caught up in a legal battle is invariably expensive and the cost goes way beyond the hip pocket. It is time consuming, energy draining, emotionally taxing and can often be highly damaging to one’s reputation.
Fortunately, as far as we are aware, no coach has yet been taken to court over failure to deliver on their coaching practice. So far coaches seem to have avoided being sued by clients. While there have certainly been some disputes, these appear to have typically been handled through ethics committees and resolved via mediation or arbitration.
A clean track record should not give rise to complacency though. Hanging out with coaches one gets the feeling of invulnerability. We’re coaches, we’re not experts and we’re not claiming to be. We’re not telling people what to do. They’re coming up with their own solutions. However, there are an awful lot of lawyers around and sometimes frivolous matters get taken up. What should the smart coach do to minimize their risk?
As the coaching industry grows, more and more coaches are becoming involved in higher stakes situations. This, combined with an increasingly litigious society, means that it is really only a matter of time before we see a coach in court.
While it is difficult to know how you could stop a disappointed client from suing, legal expert and coach Bill Lindberg, President of the Ash Grove Group, suggests a number of steps coaches can take to reduce the likelihood of ending up in a litigious situation or to limit your exposure, including:
1. Contractual agreement
Ensure you have a clear written agreement with each client setting out the nature of the coaching relationship, coach and client responsibilities, the terms and conditions, how long is it going to last, how success will be measured, billing requirements, fees, time frames and so forth.
2. Statement of ethics
If you have a code of ethics that you subscribe to it is a good idea to include it as an addendum with your letter of engagement. Some people incorporate, either by reference or as an attachment, the code ethics of the ICF or another organization. This lets the client know that you are a coach with principles who adheres to ethical standards.
3. Promise only things you have control over
Coaches that are eager to get business may fall into the trap of promising things that are beyond their control to deliver. It is important to limit your promises and representations to those things you have some control over. For example in transitional career coaching, it would be highly risky to promise that a client working with you will get a job. That’s not necessarily in the coach’s control. A better way of stating it would be that you will be giving your best effort to assist them in a career search or job search.
4. Coach-client confidentiality
Unlike attorney-client privilege, doctor-patient privilege or priest or minister-parishioner privilege, where the contents of conversations or writings cannot be disclosed if they are part of that relationship, there is no current recognition of coach-client privilege. This means that care should be taken with what coaches note in their records. Some coaches use a code so it’s more difficult to decipher. It is wise to include a phrase in your engagement letter or client contract along the lines of “our conversations or interactions are confidential subject to the limitations of the law”.
5. Client records
Keep all records securely and take care not to be negligent. Don’t leave papers out on your desk if you’re meeting with other clients. When it comes time to dispose of records, ensure that is also done in a secure and appropriate way.
6. Corporate structure
Consider choosing a corporate structure that limits liability, such as a limited liability company, corporation or trust rather than operating as a sole trader or partnership.
Maintain all relevant insurances including director’s insurance, public liability and professional liability insurance that includes coverage for the cost of defense if you were sued, because that can be enormously expensive should a matter go to trial.
8. Proper Business Administration
Ensure that you adhere to all the administrative requirements for your business including accounting and tax regulations, employer obligations, annual meetings, articles of incorporation and by-laws relating to corporate form.
Always respect copyright. The safest thing to do is if you’re going to use something that is possibly copyrighted material ask permission and give credit for using it. If you represent work to be your own and in fact it’s someone else’s, there are copyright infringement repercussions that can flow from that.
Reference: Bill Lindberg, The Coach Mentor Podcast, Episode 19: Legal Issues in Coaching
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