Should You Offer a
Free First Therapy Session in Private Practice?
Most therapists offer some form of free initial contact like a phone call before scheduling the first therapy session, but what about offering a face-to-face initial session to clients free of charge? Different therapists have different opinions, and it’s best to choose what’s best for you. In this article, I go over the pros and cons of offering a free first therapy session in private practice.
The idea behind offering a free first therapy session is obvious: finding a therapist that’s a good fit is a challenging task! It’s a big enough deal to figure out who to contact for an initial phone call, let alone figuring out if that therapist will be the right fit within a brief phone call. And if a therapist charges out of pocket, that’s a huge expense to waste your money on if it’s not a good fit!
I get it. So much so that when I first started out in private practice I seriously considered offering a free first therapy session to my clients. But with some thought, I opted not to. Here are some pros and cons to reflect on if you’re considering offering a free first therapy session in private practice:
Pros of a Free First Therapy Session in Private Practice
1. Putting the client’s needs first
This is a huge pro of offering a free first therapy session. Of course, clients who are a bit unsure of whether you might be the best fit for them will likely be more happy to schedule with you if they know the session is free.
2. Get more clients to schedule an initial session
Many therapists hope that by offering a free session, more clients will schedule an initial appointment and then feel safe enough to continue as a paying client.
If I put myself in the client’s shoes, this is a HUGE pro. The free first therapy session lowers the threshold of when I would feel ready to schedule an appointment with a therapist. It’s possible more people would be willing to give therapy a try if the first session is free.
Cons of a Free First Therapy Session in Private Practice
Unfortunately, it’s been my experience observing colleagues who offer a free initial appointment that most of the time, the cons of offering a free first therapy session tend to outweigh the pros. Here are some of the cons to consider:
1. Lost income
Think about it: how many free session time slots are you willing to offer up per week? One? Three? Five? You may get people calling to schedule simply to snag a free first session, only to never see you again. It’s also far more likely that clients won’t show for their first session, or that they’ll schedule a second session with you only to not show up or contact you again. So the amount of lost income might be pretty significant using this strategy.
To put numbers to this idea: even if I offered just one free first therapy session per week, I would lose $660 in lost income per month at my fee. That’s nearly $8000 per year!
I don’t know about you, but $8,000 is a significant pay cut in my eyes.
2. Time investment
If you meet face-to-face, even if it’s free of charge, you are officially this person’s therapist. The client must complete the initial paperwork and you need to start a file for this client with the appropriate documentation. For me, doing the affiliated paperwork after an intake session takes at least 5 times longer than writing a progress note for an ongoing client. That’s a HUGE time investment for no pay.
I have seen therapists offer a free initial session without completing the affiliated documentation unless the client schedules a follow-up session. This is a definite no-no! It’s illegal to offer your therapeutic services without informed consent and completing the required documentation.
If you do offer that first session free of charge, make sure you are completing all required paperwork as well.
3. Lack of client investment
Sometimes offering things for free is not always good for business. By offering a free initial session, you may have several clients schedule who are not interested in pursuing more than one or two sessions, or who are not especially invested in the work of therapy. Working with unmotivated clients while not getting paid is a recipe for therapist resentment and burnout.
Alternatives to a Free Initial Therapy Session
I’m quite sure my bias is coming through here. As I said, I don’t offer a free first therapy session. But I do know there are therapists who choose to do so and find the investment worth it to them.
Fortunately, there are ways we can help set clients up for success before they ever schedule an appointment with us. We have a responsibility to communicate clearly about what clients can expect in-session with us before they commit to counseling. I think many therapists are lacking in this area. Here are a few ways to clarify your services to clients before they ever commit to scheduling an appointment with you:
Before we attempt to communicate what to expect to potential clients, we have to be crystal clear on what it is that we’re offering to clients. If we’re not sure what we’re offering to clients and how to communicate it clearly, then potential clients will feel confused about what we offer before they schedule a session.
Need a little help developing your marketing strategy? You might find my article about developing a marketing strategy a helpful place to start: How to Get Counseling Clients | Marketing Your Private Practice. I also cover this topic in-depth in my upcoming e-course. Sign up here to stay in the loop when my course launches!
It’s important that we do the best we can to convey to potential clients what they can expect if they schedule an initial session with us. We want to be clear through our website and other materials what working with us will be like for clients.
I encourage you to really take your time as you write the copy (text) for your website. Put yourself in the client’s shoes and be as clear as you possibly can about what they can expect if they decide to work with you.
I’ve spent a few years fine-tuning my website copy. Initially, I heard from lots of potential clients, most of which were not even closely connected to my niche or interested in meeting with me. In time, I hear from fewer potential clients, but nearly all of them are ready to commit to long-term counseling before we even schedule an initial call.
Want to learn more about writing great website copy? Here’s a helpful article to get you started: 5 Tips for Writing Effective Web Copy for Your Therapy Website.
Free initial phone session
In addition to offering clarity in my marketing materials, I also offer a free initial phone session. If you’re interested in learning more about doing a free initial phone consult, check out my article: Initial Phone Screen in Counseling Private Practice.
It’s important that this initial call is a screening that goes both ways, so the potential client feels they have a clear sense of what to expect from you before making any decisions.
Whether you decide to offer a free initial in-person consultation or not, be sure to weigh all the pros and cons before making the decision that’s best for you and your clients.
Ready to dive deeper into starting a private practice? I have a free guide for that! Check it out here to grab your free guide: Start a Private Practice in Counseling
Until next time, from one therapist to another: I wish you well!