Defining a “Successful Practice” in Professional Counseling: The Big Conundrum

Guest post by Dr. John H. Morgan, Karl Mannheim Professor of the History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences

The frightening thing about starting a counseling practice is not knowing whether one will be a success or not. Furthermore, there is the anxiety about what it even means to be “a success” in the field of professional counseling. Finally, there are no guide books or guidelines to assist one in defining the term “success” when used in the context of a counseling practice. Let’s face it, in the medical and legal professions, some simple and commonly used criteria for success are income, and, of course, a positive reputation resulting from successfully bringing one’s patients and clients to a happy resolution of the issues which precipitated the contact in the first place. A good income and a solid roster of satisfied customers are clearly the most basic criteria for a “successful practice” in law and medicine, and, more to the point, the same could be said of a great numbers of professions.

Now, when it comes to a “successful practice” in professional counseling, these two criteria become somewhat murky in determining what one means by a “good income” and certainly what one might presume to mean by “satisfied customers.” Data-based studies of this touchy subject do not exist! There is a plethora of self-help books on the market explaining to a would-be professional counselor how to do it, where to do it, why to do it, and when to do it, but nothing approximating a professionally respectable explanation of what is meant by producing a satisfied customer (a “counseling client”)!

Clearly, the difficulty lies in not being able to determine what a “satisfied” client looks like. Is it someone who has had his or her expectations met in the counseling session? Or, is it someone who reaches a resolution of the presenting problem to his or her satisfaction? Because so many cases of counseling do not end in a culminating resolution or termination to the counseling relationship, often the counselor doesn’t really know what “happened” to the client. In law (like in medicine, or even auto mechanics or plumbing), the lawyer brings the client to a resolution whether in or out of court such that it is clear to all parties that the issue has reached a resolution, satisfactorily or not. In the practice of medicine, the physician assists the patient in reaching a resolution to the presenting illness such that both the physician and the patient recognize the resolution, again whether successful or not. Likewise with the auto mechanic and the plumber, either the car runs or it doesn’t and the pipe leaks or it doesn’t.


However, when dealing with a counseling client, resolutions are not so clearly defined and the termination to the professional relationship is far from clear excepting when the client simply stops coming or the counselor chooses to terminate the relationship. In such cases, can a concept like “success” even be employed? In the absence of data relative to the number of instances in which a counselor learns that a client has reached the resolution of his or her presenting issue or problem to their own satisfaction or not, we are left to never really know whether the counselor is successful or not, if by successful we mean really and truly assisting individuals who come to them for help and actually providing the help sought and needed.

Though complicated, the recognition of a successful practice when judged by the first of the two traditionally accepted criteria, namely, income, is something each professional must determine personally. The average general practitioner in medicine in the State of Indiana earns an average annual income of $94,000.00, and in the practice of general law earns an average annual income of $80,000.00.  Whether that is considered a successful practice or not is left to each individual practitioner to decide, some saying certainly not, with others saying contentedly, of course. Naturally, some physicians and lawyers do better than average and some do less, but they are left to their own personal criterion to determine and judge whether or not what they are doing is successful.

Likewise, and certainly, the same applies to the professional counselor, and let there be no question about it, income is indispensable to the overall definition of a “successful practice,” for without the income, there is no practice to judge successful or not. However, with that being said, no true professional would permit a definition of a successful practice to rest solely on the issue of income. So, we are back to the second criterion of a successful practice, namely, that of a roster of satisfied clients, however “satisfied” is defined. In this discussion, we conclude by defining a satisfied client as one who has been assisted in reaching a resolution to the presenting issue or problem in his or her life by virtue of the relationship with a designated professional. In other words, if one makes a living at it and establishes a roster of satisfied clients, one can safely say they have a “successful practice.”

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