by Rachel Rodgers, Business Lawyer, Intellectual Property Strategist and Creator of Small Business Bodyguard
As a coach, you have the opportunity to connect with clients on a deeply personal level. You listen, reflect and provide guidance. You lead your clients through explorations of the limiting beliefs and actions that have been holding them back, and you help them set goals for their future. Your work, in one word: lifechanging. Mic drop. Wait, wait, wait–somebody turn down the Soothing Sounds of the Sea soundtrack, because this is serious. Your work has the ability to CHANGE LIVES! That’s incredible, and probably incredibly rewarding. However, if you don’t mind me saying so, it’s also a little bit frightening, right?
Look, I’m lawyer. It’s my job to plan and strategize in order to avoid conflict and/or disaster. (That’s not to say that I don’t have a rosy outlook on life. Just ask my life coach…). While thinking like a lawyer may make me sound a bit of a Negative Nelly, my aim isn’t to frighten you, but to be real about the risks to which you are exposing your business, so you can look them in the eye, take their power away, and get back to changing the world.
So, allow me to flip the scripts for a moment and put you in the hot seat to answer some questions. What’s been keeping you from taking an honest look at your coaching business through a legal lens to see what’s missing? Does the thought of making sure your coaching business is legally legit feel too overwhelming and time consuming? Are you afraid to find out exactly how many holes there are in your legal armor? Do you just trust that because you practice with integrity others will do the same (i.e., that no one is going to take advantage of your time or your work)? Or, are you just plain worried that you will open up a can of whoopsidaisies that is too expensive to close again?
If I had to guess, I’d say your reasons for procrastinating on these legal issues are some combination of all of the above. How do I know this? I’ve been working with entrepreneurs for years, and while coaching is a unique business, the desire to avoid the icky, boring, stressy legal aspects of business is one that most entrepreneurs share–no matter what field they are in. The good news is, if you decide to buckle down and commit, there are some legal issues that you can take care of on your own–if you choose–that will get you on the right track to legal righteousness in to time.
For your reading pleasure and professional enlightenment–Three reasons you need to create a legal foundation for your coaching business:
1. You could be opening yourself up to liability online.
So what should these policies contain? Well, since they are the place where you lay down the law with your visitors and consumers, they should pretty much cover, well, everything. For coaches, it’s especially important that you describe in detail your service offerings (not only what you do, but also what you don’t do), limit your liability, reserve your right to refuse service, restrict the age for visitors/consumers of your site (we recommend no one under 18), disclose affiliates and third party links. Plus, you should also include all of the other boilerplate legal language about venue, mediation, litigation expenses, etc.
It’s difficult to identify one of these as being more important than another, but as a coach, it is crucial that you have the right disclaimers. Not everyone understands (even if they think they do) the difference between a health coach and a nutritionist, a financial coach and a Certified Financial Planner, or a life coach and a licensed therapist. It is super important that you make the difference clear to them up front so that they don’t go into your relationship with false expectations and then seek legal remedy from you later when they find out that what they are getting isn’t what they expected.
As an online entrepreneur it’s also crucial that your Terms and Conditions address the issue of intellectual property. Namely, that you own it and other’s can’t use it without your permission. Which brings us to Number 2…
2. You could be losing money (and time) by not protecting your Intellectual Property.
You don’t need me to tell you that the growth of the coaching industry is exponential, and competition is fierce. And, because you probably spend much of your time creating original content for your website, blog, or programs, you certainly don’t need me to tell you how important content is to your coaching business. However, you might need me to remind you (in my most Negative Nelly tone) that, in business, the relationship between value and vulnerability is directly proportional. Meaning that, the more valuable something is to your business, the more vulnerable it is. Meaning that, your content is vulnerable. (There, I said it.)
As a coach, you might conduct your business under the assumption that because you, and many of your colleagues, operate at a high level of integrity, all of your business dealings will be clear and uneventful, that you can trust your fellow coaching colleagues to be honest and forthright, and that all of your clients will be respectful of your time and work. I understand where you’re coming from, but when it comes down to unanticipated legal woes, positivity can be an occupational hazard for coaches.
Let’s not mince words here: sometimes people can be just plain crappy. In the case of colleagues, they might be sinister (or desperate) enough to intentionally steal your content and pass it off as their own, or maybe they are too self-absorbed to realize that they are borrowing too heavily from your content to create their own. In the context of clients, they might not realize how much it hurts your business, and the coaching industry overall, that they copy and share your material with people in their lives whom they feel need to hear it. Of course you want your good work to positively influence as many people as possible, but that shouldn’t come at your direct expense.
Your content and your brand constitute more value in your business than you probably realize. Not protecting them through trademark and copyright registrations and regular “policing” of the internet for your content is akin to giving away your time and money. Sure, there are certain contexts in which you want to give away content–or even money– but you should decide those contexts on your own terms, not let content infringers decide for you. Because, the truth is, if you allow people to take your work and use it as they please, over time your message gets muddled and manipulated. In the end, the valuable things you have to say–those potentially life-changing things–might get lost. That means, people lose out on hearing your unique voice and you miss out on getting to do what you love for a living.
3. Your events/retreats could be putting you at risk financially (and professionally).
Events and retreats are a great way for you to connect with a larger group of people in person and to work with some of your coaching colleagues in a setting where you both have valuable things to offer. Having a group of like-minded people gathered together for an event is inspiring for you and for your participants. But (here comes the lawyerly doom and gloom again), there are a number of financial and other risks that come along with running retreats and events. You should by no means avoid arranging them, you should just make sure that you get yourself legally squared away so that you can stress less and have successful outcomes. My rule of thumb is to have agreements in place for all of your business endeavors. Running retreats and events is no exception.
To begin, you should have a participant’s agreement in place with all of your participants, for every event or retreat. This should cover all of your payment/deposit terms, cancellation/refund policy, your right to alter the schedule, what happens in the case of unforeseen circumstances, what you expect of the participant and what you plan to deliver. You should also have agreements with any other coaches or guests who plan to give a talk or run a session at the event or retreat. Nothing can sour a professional relationship faster (or bum out your participants) like a no-show or last minute cancellation. Often, when the terms of the arrangement have been agreed upon in writing, people are less likely to cancel because they know what they’ll lose if they do.
Finally, you should have agreements with the venue, caterers, musicians or any other suppliers with whom you’ll be dealing for the event. Likely, they will have their own agreements for you to sign, and that’s totally fine. Just make sure you understand what you’re getting and what happens if you need to alter the number of participants, or worse yet cancel altogether. It’s especially good to take note of what happens in the event that the venue needs to cancel and how much notice they have to provide before doing so.
That might have seemed like a whole lot of risk to tackle, but don’t feel overwhelmed. These issues are totally manageable and once you do, you’ll feel the sweet tingle of relief and accomplished.
Here again, in brief, is how you can tame those three legal beasts, and get yourself back to the Positive Priscilla you once were:
- Register the copyright in all of your content, especially online content, and register the trademark in your business/brand name and/or slogans. Registering your trademark protects the integrity of your brand and helps prevent others from profiting from your hard work. And here’s a valuable little secret: registering the copyright and trademark in your content and brand is the first step towards setting up licensing deals that are good for the world, and good for your revenue.
- Get signed agreements with all of your participants, guest speakers, and other vendors/suppliers for every retreat or event. It’s crucial that these agreements cover issues like cancellation and refund policies, deposit policies, and what happens if plans change due to emergencies or if the venue or guest providers cancel without your control. Remember you can always be more lenient than the agreement allows for (if you want to cut someone some slack for a late payment), so it’s better to be a bit more rigid up front.
Want help with this and so much more for your coaching practice’s legal needs?
Check out our free cheat sheat: 10 Rookie Legal Mistakes Coaches Make.
Rachel is a business lawyer, intellectual property strategist, creator of Small Business Bodyguard and all around legal badass. She runs a non-traditional law firm—Rachel Rodgers Law Office P.C.—that has successfully disrupted the legal industry and made it easy (and damn fun) for innovative companies, startup and entrepreneurs work with experienced attorneys and get the legal help they need to do the crazy stuff they want to do. Her firm has been featured in Forbes, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more, while Rachel herself has been featured in and contributed to various media outlets and publications such as Fast Company, MSNBC, The Huffington Post, Amex Open Forum and others.
Rachel started this revolution by creating the innovative and entertaining business law guide called Small Business Bodyguard: Cover Your Bases, Cover Your Assets, Cover Your Ass and recently released Legal Nunchucks: For Coaches that is THE resource for making sure your coaching business is protected, legit and overflowing with moola. It covers the 10 rookie legal mistakes that most coaches make and offers you the tools to stop running your business like one and instead, lay that legal foundation like a pro. To get a her free cheat sheet: 10 Rookie Legal Mistakes Coaches Make click here.