Social Work

LMSW vs. LCSW: A Guide To The Differences

LMSW vs. LCSW: A Guide To The Differences
In order to go into private practice or deliver psychotherapeutic services and counseling, it’s important to invest in a program with a strong clinical practice track. Image from Unsplash
Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert July 29, 2018

Many Master's of Social Worker (MSW) candidates enter the profession hoping to provide clinical mental health services, which might include performing counseling or psychotherapy. Before they can provide help to patients, aspiring social workers must pursue a credential.

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Social workers look at problems from many angles—psychological, social, political—in order to provide the most appropriate interventions for their clients. It’s a job that requires skill and training, which is why not just anyone can declare themselves a social worker. You need to earn credentials in the form of a state-issued license. That means becoming either a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

In this guide to the differences between LMSW and LCSW we will cover…..

  • What is a licensed master social worker?
  • What is a licensed clinical social worker?
  • Differences between an LMSW and LCSW
  • Guide to social work licensure

What Is a licensed social worker?

Licensed social workers pass exams that qualify them to help individuals who are:

  • In emotional distress
  • Experiencing marital conflict
  • Struggling with PTSD
  • Confronting substance abuse disorder
  • Facing terminal illness

Their practice might take the form of counseling, therapy, education, or connecting people with public and private resources. Social workers, in short, are problem solvers.

The first step to becoming a licensed social worker is earning a Master of Social Work (MSW degree) . There are multiple levels of licensure you can attain, after completing a master’s program. First, you can become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) by passing state board exams. Passing the LMSW exam opens the door to becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, which involves completing supervised clinical work and another exam.

After certification, social workers perform:

  • Clinical intakes
  • Counseling
  • Interventions
  • Resource-sharing
  • Policymaking
  • Social research
  • Support


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Where do LMSWs and LCSWs work?

Once you become licensed as a social worker, you can work in a variety of environments, including:

  • Clinical settings
  • Educational institutions
  • Government agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Military facilities
  • Social/political advocacy organization
  • Social welfare agencies

They may work in case management at an organization or agency that manages child protection, housing assistance, or end-of-life care. They may work with nonprofits or government agencies on policy reform or social advocacy.

Licensed clinical social workers who have passed the LCSW exam can work in the same places as LMSWs, but without supervision. This includes mental health institutions and private practice.

Guide to social work licensure

Social work is a regulated profession, meaning professional standards, competency and a code of ethics that protects both clients and practitioners.

Licensure and certification requirements vary by state. All states require you pass appropriate state certification board exams, which consist of 170 multiple choice questions. The knowledge and skills you obtain as a student typically prepare you for your exam.

Most states require that candidates have an MSW to practice. A few states—Alabama, Hawaii, and Indiana, to name a few—allow for licensure with the bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). Even in these states, social workers with BSWs are limited in the functions they can perform. To do the heavy lifting in social work, you’ll need an MSW.

After you become licensed, adding your name to the Association of Social Work Boards’ (ASWB) Social Work Registry will allow state licensing boards to verify and store your credential information. This will facilitate an easier licensure process in a new state, should you relocate and want to practice social work in your new home.

What Is a licensed master social worker?

Becoming a LMSW is usually the first-tier of clinical licensure; it can be seen as an entry-level social work license. As an LMSW, you will be able to work in a mental health setting under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker or other health professional.

To be eligible for the LMSW, you must provide proof of your degree (MSW). You must also pass state licensing board exams administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Note that degree availability and requirements will vary state-by-state.

What Is a licensed clinical social worker?

After the MSW or LMSW, the next tier of licensing is Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). This higher level allows the social worker to provide mental health services and to enter private practice work without supervision.

Some LCSWs choose to enter different areas of practice, including policy and organization work. The license does not limit where or what you practice; it confers regulatory certification on your status and on your experience as a professional.

Obtaining this license requires you be supervised in clinical work as a post-graduate for a few years. However, with an MSW, you can be employed full-time and earn a salary while pursuing this ultimate credential.

Differences between an LMSW and LCSW

The biggest difference between these two types of social workers lies in the scope of their practice. LMSWs often become non-clinical social workers, sometimes called “macro-level social workers,” and work to change people’s circumstances through social reform. They try to help communities and individuals by targeting systems, services, and policies that make it difficult for people to thrive. They might work as:

  • Community Developer: Community developers focus on improving the well-being of individuals, groups, and neighborhoods by working on social, economic, and environmental issues. They often engage in planning and implementing community projects and initiatives that promote social change and improve community life.
  • Community Organizers: These professionals work at the grassroots level to mobilize individuals and groups to take collective action on social issues. They build community capacity, raise awareness, and advocate for changes in policies or practices affecting their communities.
  • Policy Analysts: Policy analysts research, analyze, and develop policies and strategies to address social issues. They work in various settings, including government agencies, non-profits, and think tanks, providing data-driven insights and recommendations for policy development and reform.
  • Policy Director or Manager: In this role, social workers oversee the development and implementation of policies within organizations or government bodies. They provide leadership and strategic direction in policy planning, analysis, and advocacy, ensuring that policies effectively address social problems and needs.
  • Public Health Official: Public health officials focus on promoting and protecting the health of populations. They develop and implement public health policies, programs, and initiatives, often collaborating with community groups, healthcare providers, and government agencies to address public health concerns and improve health outcomes.

Clinical social workers are focused on helping individuals, families, and communities identify and address their problems, access resources, and get the support they need to thrive.

These workers might specialize in a number of areas, including:

  • Child and Family Work: This area focuses on supporting children and their families through various challenges. Social workers in this field assess and address issues like child welfare, family conflicts, and parenting needs, often working in schools, child protective services, or family service agencies.
  • Trauma Intervention: Social workers specializing in trauma intervention provide support and therapy to individuals who have experienced traumatic events. This includes crisis intervention, counseling, and helping clients develop coping strategies to overcome the psychological impact of trauma.
  • Mental Health: In this field, social workers provide counseling, therapy, and support to individuals dealing with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. They may work in hospitals, clinics, or private practice, and often collaborate with psychiatrists and psychologists.
  • Addiction: This area involves working with individuals struggling with addiction to substances like drugs or alcohol. Social workers help clients through recovery processes, providing counseling, treatment planning, and support for related issues such as homelessness or family problems.
  • Health: Health social workers provide support and services to individuals dealing with medical conditions or health crises. They work in hospitals, clinics, or community health settings, helping patients navigate the healthcare system, understand their treatments, and cope with illness-related challenges.
  • Aging: Social workers in the field of aging, also known as gerontological social workers, assist elderly individuals and their families. They address aging-related issues such as healthcare, long-term care planning, and adapting to age-related changes in physical and cognitive abilities.

To work in the clinical side of the field, you must be licensed and have a minimum of an MSW.

(Updated on January 9, 2024)

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About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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Categorized as: Social WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology