Choosing a Specialty and Why You Need One in Private Practice

I don’t know about you but for me the question of whether or not to have a specialty in my private practice haunted me for years. It seemed to be the common understanding that it was a necessary evil if you wanted to have a “successful” private practice. However, the idea of choosing a specialty felt like it confined me to a narrow box that I didn’t want to be in. I, like many therapists, feared that if I had too specific of a specialty that I would risk excluding someone, and when I was first building my practice I just wanted clients...any, and all, clients!

The truth is, even with a very specific specialty, you will still see clients from all walks of life and with all sorts of presenting problems. And...having a specialty is absolutely a critical part of your marketing strategy. To build your practice faster and to keep it full, it is a good idea to market to a specialty.

So, how do you go about choosing one? In school and traditional training we are often encouraged to find our specialty through our clinical orientation or the particular populations that we work with. However, there is a major flaw with this approach and that is, most of the time, our clients will not be calling us because of our theoretical orientation or their DSM diagnosis.

Clients are seeking therapy for help with a problem they are having. In order to market ourselves successfully, we need to communicate that we understand their problem, even more specifically, we understand the problem from their perspective.

When we start to think about the problems we are genuinely interested and passionate about helping others resolve we will naturally find our specialty and the vocabulary needed to market it.

When you start exploring your marketing practices and narrowing down your specialty you should start to think about it from the client’s point of view. What do your clients (or future clients) want from you? What problems do they need help with? If you’ve been seeing clients for some time, think back to the ones you really enjoyed working with, what did they say on their intake? Not what they talk about today, but what did they say they were struggling with when they first reached out? If you’re brand new and haven’t sat with a client yet, imagine your ideal client. Allow yourself to create them in your mind and write up an imaginary intake. Give your ideal client a name, age, occupation, etc. Now think about what their intake call would sound like.

When you can answer these questions you can understand the problem from your client’s perspective and you will also have the vocabulary needed to talk about your specialty. For example, “I specialize in helping people who can’t get over their exes.” Notice I didn’t say “I specialize in helping people heal their grief over the loss of a relationship” because the chances are no one is going to call you and leave that on your voicemail!

You need to think about what your clients actually want. As therapists, who have invested many years (and dollars) into our professional development, it can be hard to imagine that a client might not actually care about our credentials, or the various internship settings we trained at, and the years of experience we have. At the end of the day clients want to know that we get them. They want to know that we understand what their problem is from their perspective, not what their diagnosis is! Understanding a problem from the perspective of what might keep a person lying awake at night will help you in choosing a specialty to market.

Here’s How You Can Take Action

Get a journal or notepad and ask yourself:

  • How do you feel about the idea of marketing a specialty? Is there anything about it that makes you uncomfortable?

  • What would need to happen or change in your perspective in order for the idea to feel better for you?

  • What problem does your ideal client lay awake at night thinking about and makes them want to pay you to help them solve it?

  • If you made a list of all of the clients you have most enjoyed working with over time, can you identify a common theme, either in the person or their problem? For example, does your list consist of mostly women aged 20-30, or adolescents? Or is there a similarity in their problems, for example, an inability to get along with authority figures such as parents or bosses, or dissatisfaction with their body? What can you identify as a common thread amongst these clients?

  • Are there any therapists that you know with very specialized practices that you can reach out to in order to explore any concerns you have and learn more about what specializing looks like in real life practice, not just in theory?

And, of course, I’d love to hear about your personal experiences or if you have any questions, comments, insights, or protests! Let’s chat down below in the comments section.