What I wish I would have known: A conversation on private practice success.

Photo Credit: Christin Hume 

Photo Credit: Christin Hume 

I love receiving emails from students, young professionals and/or pre-licensed therapists who are new to the business world. This is an email I received recently. I decided to turn it in to a blog mainly because I was struck by how articulate, professional and polite "Jason" is with his request.

My hope is that our conversation may offer support and inspiration to other young professionals. I've changed his name and edited some of the identifying details in order to protect "Jason's" anonymity, but the spirit of his email shines through:

"Hello Mari,

I am 25 years old and I am currently attending University to get my Masters in Social Work. I am interested in pursuing mental health and eventually having my own private practice as well. I read your “professional story” on your website and I thought it was very inspiring and wonderful how successful you have been. I basically just wanted to reach out to you to express my similar interest in private practice, but also was curious on what you would consider “mistakes" you’ve made in the field that you wish you knew before you pursued it. I am sure you are very busy, so I appreciate a response whenever you are free.


And here is my response to "Jason":

"Greetings Jason,

Thank you for your email and kind words. And, congratulations on your road toward pursing your Masters in Social Work, we need more healers in our hurting world!

You are correct, I am a busy professional who receives a great many emails each month. However, very few are as professional and polite in their requests as you have been. And, as I have not had this particular question posed before, it is a pleasure to be of support.

At 55 years young, and with this being my 3rd business, what I know is that no matter how hard we work to avoid making mistakes, alas they will happen in every professional journey. Of that you can be assured. 

Often times our mistakes are the best teachers and how we grow the most as professionals. Though challenging, we learn valuable lessons from our missteps. Thus, I've learned to embrace my mistakes as wise friends.

Jason, I could list at least 100 mistakes I've made over three decades of business management, but here's the thing, you won't grow from my mistakes, you'll only grow from your own mistakes. 

However, I am happy to share a few tried and true tips from my 35 years of small business ownership, and 12 years in private practice. Here they are off of the top of my head, and in no particular order:

1. Perfectionism is a time waster. 

2. Don't over think decisions.

3. Make sure you have everything spelled out clearly in your office lease agreement (including no wall noise transfer/soundproofing. My first office was very noisy and had I taken the time to spell that out in the rental agreement, they would have had to honor providing a quiet space. I learned from this, and I made sure when I expanded and moved into my center that I spelled out noise conditions very clearly).

4. Don't sweat the small stuff. You'll be juggling a ton of tasks in private practice, so breathe. 

5. Take regular time off. Seriously. 

6. Have good boundaries with friends and family members who want free therapy.

7. Don't be afraid to charge a good fee and be worthy of that fee.

8. Don't feel that you must take on every client who wants to work with you.

9. Always be polite to everyone - treat each person as you would like to be treated. 

10. Have a niche and specialization in your practice (don't just treat "everything"). Get certified in that niche. 

11. You are young. Pursue your PhD sooner than later if you are able to do this. If not, you'll survive just fine. In fact, more than fine. 

12. Stay away from the Energy Vampires: The Negative Nellies, Envious Eds, Fearful Freds, and Jealous Jennies. 

13. Find your tribe of colleagues - those who lift you up and encourage you.

14. Keep learning, never stop!

15. Say yes more than no.

16. To thine own self be true (or "do you").

17. Be organized. You cannot run a successful business/practice and be unorganized.

18. Return emails and phone calls promptly.

19. Spell check (and make room that sometimes you're going to have a typo...or three). 

20. Invest in a good website designer that understands SEO.

21. Be kind.

22. Say thank you. And, be polite to everyone not just the "big wigs" (especially be polite to the service people such as office cleaners, gardeners, assistants, drivers, garbage collectors, delivery people, etc.)

23. Promote others that you trust and respect often (and watch what happens in return!).

24. Trust your gut. Always. Always. You'll thank me later for this tip. 

25. Get rest. Sleep. Meditate. Pray. 

26. Take the weekends off (don't schedule clients on Saturdays).

27. Stay on top of your treatment notes. Ha! Well, do your very best with this one. 

28. Operate with the highest ethics - be known for your ethics and honesty.

29. Help others. Especially those who can't do a darn thing for you in return. 

30. Have good boundaries around your time.

31. No is not a dirty word. 

32. Lean in to risk.

33. Remember to develop other income streams besides 1:1 therapy clients.

34. Invest in consulting and coaching when needed.

35. Stay humble.

36. Sometimes a nice "F" bomb is just what the doctor ordered. 

37. Be gentle with yourself, jettison shame.

38. Blog. Blog. Blog. Repurpose your writing (like I'm doing here).

39. Enjoy time in nature. Adopt rescue pets. Have a supportive significant other who makes you laugh...a lot! 

40. Protect your energy - compassion fatigue and burn out IS a real thing in this profession. Balance is key! 

41. Write a book. Yes, you absolutely have something to say Jason. 

42. Be authentic. Embrace that some folks will like you and others will not. If you try to please all of the people all of the time, you'll drive yourself nuts. So, be yourself and you'll attract exactly those people who are your tribe mates. 

43. Stay connected to something higher than yourself.

44. Remember that the licensing board is a consumer protection board and their job is to protect the public (not the therapist). So keep your ducks in a row. 

45. Enjoy the journey. I was 25 years old, and then I blinked and here I am 55 years old. It goes quickly, trust me on this one. And...I remember someone saying the same thing to me and I didn't really get it until I was in my 40s. And that's how it is supposed to be. 

46. Don't lose your sense of humor (or if you start to, notice that and do something about it).

47. Read the fine print. Not everyone is going to be as honest as you are. And yes, that includes a few of your future clinical colleagues. 

48. Don't abide bullshit. You are not a doormat. At the same time, learn not to personalize every thing. Blow off snarky, and rise above. 

49. Have impeccable boundaries with your therapy clients. And make sure you have a solid intake packet that clearly spells out your policies. 

50. Be an original. Don't copycat or plagiarize. Find your own style. 

51. No one owes you anything.

52. Understand that running your own business is a FULL time job. Be willing to work hard. 

53. Don't over borrow or overspend. But do invest and create! 

54. Notice if you are tired. Self care needs to be at the top of every business owner's list.

55. Don't allow clients to come in to session sick. Have a strict policy with this, and then extend respect in the other direction. Sessions can be conducted via tele therapy. 

56. Back up everything (external hard drive/HIPAA style).

57. Start a retirement fund. Do that as soon as possible. 

58. Volunteer. But be selective in what you take on. 

59. Encourage others. 

60. Nurture your creativity. This is so very important. 

61. Don't be afraid to aim high.

62. No idea is "too big" - don't listen to anyone who tells you your ideas are too lofty.

63. There will be angels and assholes on your professional journey. Learn the difference (some are in disguise on both sides). 

64. Have a diverse group of friends and colleagues. Older, younger, different ethnicities, different professions, different educational levels, different political leanings, a variety of orientations, genders, regions, religions. We learn from those who are different than us. 

65. Travel and explore. Learning about other cultures is the spice of life. While your at it, try and learn a new language, or at least a few words here and there. It's a beautiful, big world out there. 

66. Hire a great CPA, bookkeeper, and business attorney as soon as you are able. These will be your best business buddies. And don't forget they support you, not the other way around. 

67. Hone your public speaking talents.

68. Learn the art of a true apology and be willing to extend an apology when you make a mistake (and you'll make plenty - we all do).

69. Think far outside of the box. In fact, recycle that box and embrace that the sky is the limit. 

70. Dress in a way that best suits you. 

71. Examine, challenge and heal your biases. We all have them. Trust that the lens that you look through at 25, may be very different at 35, 45, 55 and beyond. Evolve. 

72. Practice gratitude. Daily.

73. Practice deep, empathic, intentional listening. Listening is the most active part of any conversation - did you know that? Well, now you do.

74. You actually don't know it all (and I don't either). Sometimes you'll be wrong (and so will I). 

75. Copyright your intellectual property. You're welcome. 

Photo Credit: Nis Stahl 

Photo Credit: Nis Stahl 

So, there you have it Jason, 75 completely organic tips from me to you. I'll stop at 75, though I could go on and on as I've learned many lessons along the way, and, I'm sure I have many more waiting for me. 

Perhaps you had hoped for more serious business advice. Or perhaps not. If you did, I get it. Most of us want a specific roadmap to follow when launching our private practices. You can take a look at this blog for more business minded tips that will support you when you are ready.

However, good to keep in mind that one can have the best laid plans, but if you don't apply some of the above, you'll miss out on the sweet side of business. I wish I would have taken my own advise many years ago when first starting out...but hey, as an after thought,  I'm kind of glad I didn't - look at all the cool lessons I would have missed out on! 

Thank you for allowing me to be of service and support today Jason. In fact, I think I'll turn our email conversation into a blog for my readers, and as a support for other young pre-licensed professionals.

I wish you much success on your journey forward.

Kind regards,


Dear Colleague & Reader,

If you would like to add your own words of advise for pre-licensed therapists in the comment section below, please feel free.

Or if you are a professional considering the mental health field, or you are a pre-licensed professional with a question to ask about private practice, you are welcome to add your questions below. We all start somewhere!
Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S