The more than century-old discipline of social work offers a specific identity embodied in the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics which includes the values of service, human dignity, and integrity. Social work training articulates skills including reflective listening, open-ended questions, and non-verbal communication. Psychotherapy theorists define interventions like identifying specific behaviors, solutions, and relationship styles. Laws and court decisions require steps like risk assessment, mandated reporting, and documentation. Insurance means diagnosis, informed consent, and billing. These are among the questions to be answered in developing a professional identity. When you decide to “hang out your own shingle”, how does all that fit on the sign? Of course, the business sign these days is not a sign at all. And, business is generally not generated by drop-in or drive-by customers. In ten years, despite investing in print advertising, memberships in therapy directories, and direct mail and e-mail marketing, most of my referrals still come by word of mouth from clients themselves.
There are a variety of platforms that serve as the modern day business sign, among them websites, Facebook, Linkedin, and Plaxo, and I use them all. But the one that has been most useful, flexible, and personal is my website: www.michaelajoneslcsw.com. However, it is not having the website that defines my professional identity but the process of developing it. It requires answering and continuing to reflect on the big questions: Who are you? What do you believe? What do you have to offer? How do you think about people and their challenges? How do you work? On what education, knowledge, and experience is your work based? With whom will you work? What will you do or not do? Who are your colleagues and connections? Because this business sign exists in the ether and not at a specific physical address or even on paper it can represent me where ever I work and whatever I do. It holds a space for my professional identity and ideas whether I am in private practice or working for another organization or not at all. It can be changed and updated and refreshed whenever I am.
The process started by reviewing a lot of websites, both those of other therapists and those of other businesses. Then I had to determine the necessary content, like contact information, and nice content, like intake forms and other resources. Most importantly it may be a client’s first introduction to me and my services. In that way it provides a first impression and first informed consent, the legal and ethical information required to be provided to clients. This is included in a professional biography, philosophy, and frequently asked questions also contained in the forms clients sign to provide informed consent for treatment and notice of privacy practices. The latter leads to thinking and planning how client information and files, both paper and electronic, will be stored and secured for retrieval until they can legally be destroyed. In my case, it is a locked filing cabinet inside a locked office and password protected software and computer. The first intake forms I used I borrowed directly from the more experienced therapists with whom I worked, changing and updating them to meet my needs as my own experience and training progressed. The forms are therapeutic tools after all, including important background information, symptom checklists, and risk assessments that contribute to treatment. Providing them online was a practical way to save printing costs but also to allow clients to begin to consider the kinds of topics that might be covered in session. Developing a list of resources required me to make connections and to consider what referrals my clients might need from emergency to supportive services. A bibliography suggests options for biblio-therapy.
These days websites are simple to create and maintain by registering a domain name and hiring a hosting company, even designing the site yourself as one of my colleagues did with a Microsoft program. I paid a web designer to pull my ideas together into a cohesive presentation. First, I had to figure out what to call my website. My television handle, Mike Jones, fit nicely on the screen but a quick Google search showed it was already taken by hundreds of others and my business would be difficult to find on the internet. Having my face in the public eye made it easy to put it on my website and business cards. Most of my colleagues do not do this either because they see it as undignified, as if we are selling real estate, or they are simply not as vain as I. But there is a clinical reason I plaster my picture all over my media. Going to therapy, like the doctor and the dentist, it not always easy or comfortable. Many clients are in crisis or distress. In line with trauma-informed care, showing a client who they will meet, where they will meet, and what they can expect reduces anticipatory anxiety. It is really the beginning of the therapeutic process, contemplating change. An explanation of services explains your practice model and socializes a client to the therapeutic process. Answering frequently-asked-questions helps to define professional boundaries. The same rationale applies to including maps, directions, and pictures of the office and building along with parking information and amenities. Including links to blog, Facebook, and Twitter, if not LinkedIn and Plaxo, too, are other ways to extend the reach of a professional identity. These are the mission and vision of a private practice.