Coaching Vs. Therapy: Navigating the Profound Differences

Coaching and therapy, while seemingly similar, are distinctly different practices. Here, we explore these differences, addressing frequently asked questions and providing clarity on the legal and ethical aspects of both professions.

Distinct Practices:


Definition: Coaching is a future-focused practice aimed at personal and professional development, focusing on setting and achieving goals, and managing personal change.

Regulation: It is not government-regulated, allowing virtually anyone to offer coaching services. However, associations like the International Coach Federation (ICF) and the International Association of Coaches (IAC) provide guidelines and standards.

Scope: The coaching relationship is more fluid, and its boundaries can be nebulous due to the lack of a universally recognized definition and regulated scope.

Definition: Therapy, or psychotherapy, involves the professional treatment of mental health conditions, examining interpersonal relationships to achieve more adequate, satisfying, and productive adjustments.

Regulation: It is strictly regulated by state law and involves extensive education and licensure.

Scope: The role of psychotherapists is clearly defined, with a focus on diagnosing and treating severe mental illnesses and ensuring confidentiality.
Legal and Ethical


Boundaries and Definitions:
Coaches are legally distinct from psychotherapists. They do not possess the authority to diagnose or treat mental health conditions. It’s crucial for professionals in both fields to maintain clear boundaries to avoid the unlawful practice of medicine or psychotherapy.

Due to the clear distinction between coaching and psychotherapy, advertising for each service should be separate to avoid misleading clients regarding the scope of work.

Client Rights:
Coaching clients do not have the same rights to confidentiality and privilege as psychotherapy clients. It’s paramount that this distinction is made clear to clients before establishing a coaching relationship.
While coaching clients have a general right to privacy, the laws and regulations that protect a psychotherapy patient’s right to confidentiality do not extend to coaching relationships.

Agreements for coaching and psychotherapy services should be distinct, reflecting the unique nature, obligations, and limitations of each service.
Simultaneous Provision of Services:
Offering therapy and coaching services to a client simultaneously can lead to allegations of unethical dual relationships. It’s important to avoid such relationships and carefully consider the clients’ best interests when transitioning from one service to another.
Malpractice Insurance:
Malpractice insurance for therapists does not cover coaching services. Separate policies are needed for each, with liability insurance available to coaches through affiliates.

Best Practices:
• Professionals should possess a clear understanding of the differences between coaching and therapy.
• Explicit explanations about the services, limitations, and client rights should be provided before establishing relationships.
• Professionals must maintain proper boundaries to avoid allegations of practicing unlawfully.
• Separate advertising and distinct service agreements are recommended to avoid any misinterpretation.

Coaching and therapy are distinct fields, each with its specific definitions, scope, and legal and ethical considerations. A clear understanding and respect for these differences are crucial for professionals in both fields to maintain integrity and offer the highest level of service to their clients.
For more insights on the legal and ethical dimensions of coaching and therapy, please visit the CAMFT website or contact CAMFT’s Legal Department at 858-292-2638.


  • CAMFT: Sara Jasper, JD, and Michael Griffin, JD, LCSW, inspired by their CAMFT article. Esteemed contributors to CAMFT, with extensive knowledge in legal and ethical issues in psychotherapy and coaching.
  • www.camft.orgInternational Coach Federation –
  • International Association of Coaching –
    Cal. Bus. and Prof. Code §4980.02
  • Cal. Civil Code, §56; Cal. Evidence Code, §1012;
    Cal. Civil Code §56
    Cal. Const., art. I, § 1