In previous posts in this series of Tips for Testifying in Legal Proceedings, we’ve looked at specific advice for when you’re on the witness stand, like how to respond to trick questions, how direct and cross-examination work, and who can testify as an expert. Today, we’re stepping away from the courtroom to the therapist’s office, with some important information on how to avoid legal problems when taking on a new client.You never know when a case may become court connected. Therefore it is essential that you understand your role as a mental health provider and its legal limits, and do the right thing in the first place.
Lesson 8: How to Anticipate and Avoid Legal Problems When Engaging in a New Counseling Relationship
The key to avoiding problems with your clients is to recognize the potential for problems before they actually occur. Your engagement letters and forms lay the groundwork, create the expectations, and establish the nature of the relationship between you and your client. Therefore properly drafted documents are key to the success of your practice. Below are some important elements to consider adding to your engagement letters.The nature of your relationship. If your role is intended to be that of a therapist, make sure that role is clearly spelled out. Explain to the client that your goal and professional obligation is to assist those that you are working with in their personal and interpersonal functioning and to serve in a helper role. Further explain that this role may involve assessment of current functioning, individual and/or family psychotherapy, and other interventions targeted at helping resolve the issues that clients bring to your sessions. Make it clear that you are not hired to perform a forensic evaluation or to make recommendations to the court.Related documents and data collection. Collect and retain additional forms and documents necessary to gather information, authorize treatment and explain the details of your relationship with the client. These documents may include a client intake form, consent for treatment of a minor (if a child or children are involved), client information and consent form, statement regarding court involvement, notice of privacy practices, receipt of acknowledgment of notices, and release of information forms.Statement Regarding Court Involvement. Make it very clear to your client what will happen if you are called to court to testify. Explain to your client that you can only testify to the facts of the case and to your professional opinion, within the scope of the services you have provided. Advise your client that if you are to receive a subpoena then the lawyer or their staff will need to call the office and set up a time for the subpoena to be served. Request a reasonable number of days notice of any court appearance, so that schedule changes for your other clients can be made within a reasonable time frame. If a subpoena is not received within that minimum number of days advise that an additional “express charge” will be added. Quote your rate for any requested appearance, subpoenaed appearance, settlement conference, or deposition. Consider quoting a minimum three or four hour appearance fee for court appearances. You can also consider quoting fees for preparation time, report writing, and production of documents (as outlined in a client information and consent form) that may apply as well. It is essential that your client read and understand the statement regarding court involvement and that he or she signs that agreement individually and/or on behalf of their child. These are, of course, merely suggestions. You must decide what other terms and conditions and notifications are most important. The important thing is that you consider the implications of potentially being called to testify regarding a client, and lay the appropriate groundwork and documentation at the beginning of your professional relationship. Continue on with us next time for Lesson 9, where we’ll look at what is required of the counselor in child custody evaluations.