LMSW vs. LCSW: What’s The Difference?

Licensed master of social work (LMSW) and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) are two different career paths after graduating with a master of social work degree.

It’s ideal to start thinking about the LMSW vs. LCSW decision during the early years of your social work education. The LCSW path takes additional effort, but offers more options and rewards.

This guide explores the requirements and possible career paths for each license.

LMSW vs. LCSW: Similarities and Differences

Rules and procedures vary by state, but LMSWs and LCSWs encounter key differences across licensing exams, education requirements, professional competencies, and what services they are allowed to offer.

License Examinations

Both LCSW and LMSW applicants must pass an ASWB examination, administered through Pearson Vue at designated testing sites.

LMSW candidates often take either the master’s exam or the advanced generalist exam, while LCSW candidates take the clinical exam.

Registration fees for these multiple-choice exams range from $230-$260. To take the exam, you must apply to your local state board and receive authorization to register.

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Education and Experience Requirements

Both LMSWs and LCSWs often need a master’s degree in social work. Experience requirements for licensure vary, sometimes dramatically, by state.

Some states do not require any supervised fieldwork for LMSWs. Others require limited experience, like a field placement completed as part of a graduate degree.

Finally, some states require extensive experience, like in Florida, where LMSWs need at least three years of social work experience, including two years at the post-master’s level.

In every state where LCSW licensure is available, candidates must demonstrate extensive experience in the field. Many states also require a minimum number of hours completed under the supervision of an LCSW. Many aspiring LCSWs first become LMSWs while they complete their required supervised hours.

Skills and Workplaces

Both LMSWs and LCSWs are equipped to practice as social work generalists. They support clients in identifying and exploring their own options and making informed decisions, provide referrals to resources, and act as case managers.

They work in the same types of settings, such as schools, child welfare departments, hospitals and healthcare, courts and the justice system, departments of aging, and nonprofits. However, LCSWs can also manage an independent practice.

LCSWs and LMSWs also engage in advocacy and in work at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. However, LCSWs have more clinical training in mental health and counseling, so are more likely to engage in these areas at each level.

For example, an LMSW might focus on helping a person experiencing homelessness to find stable and supportive housing, while an LCSW might also help them address mental health conditions through counseling.

Scope of Practice

LMSWs can provide clients support and information, but they often cannot offer counseling except under the supervision of an LCSW or licensed psychologist. LMSWs often need to pursue LCSW licensure to advance further in their careers.

LCSWs have more advanced clinical skills and experience, and are licensed to practice counseling as well as general social work. They are licensed to diagnose and to treat mental health disorders, though they are not licensed to prescribe medications.

Finally, LCSWs are licensed to practice independently and to supervise LMSWs.

Is LMSW or LCSW Right For Me?

The LMSW vs. LCSW decision depends on your personal, career, and financial goals. An LCSW tends to earn more than an LMSW, and has more professional autonomy.

However, earning an LCSW license can be considerably more demanding, requiring another licensing examination and more supervised hours.

While making the LMSW vs. LCSW decision during graduate school ensures that your courses and fieldwork hours meet requirements, it’s okay to decide later, after you have more experience.

Another factor in the LMSW vs. LCSW question is the state where you want to practice, and how many of the prerequisites for being an LCSW you will meet through work as an LMSW.

Frequently Asked Questions About LMSW vs. LCSW

Is LMSW the same as LCSW?

An LMSW and LCSW both have a master’s degree and practice social work, but an LCSW has a broader scope of practice. An LCSW can diagnose and provide counseling for mental health conditions, while an LMSW is not authorized to diagnose conditions or provide counseling without supervision. Other LMSW vs. LCSW differences vary by state.

How is the LCSW exam different from the LMSW exam?

The LCSW exam covers clinical issues, specifically, diagnosing and treating mental health conditions through counseling. The LMSW examination is a generalist examination covering all aspects of social work.

What is the highest license level for a social worker?

The LCSW is the highest license level for a social worker. The LCSW is the highest license, also sometimes called the terminal license, but you do not have to have the highest degree in social work, a doctorate, to earn the highest license.

How long does it take to become a social worker?

You can work in the social work field without any degree, but most states require at least a four-year bachelor’s degree to become a social worker. They may require supervised experience in addition to this. To become an LMSW or LCSW, you need a master’s degree. Many programs allow students with a BSW and a strong academic record to earn an MSW in approximately one year, while other students need two years. To become an LCSW, you need two to three years of supervised clinical experience.

Reviewed By: Danielle Golightly, LMSW

Danielle Golightly is a licensed social worker in Michigan with over 10 years of experience. She is currently the family advocate at a child advocacy center where she works with individuals and families from diverse backgrounds. Previously, Danielle served as a victim advocate at the same agency, providing crisis intervention and psychoeducation services to families impacted by child abuse. She has also supervised graduate-level social work students and mentored undergraduates throughout their internships.

Danielle is passionate about child welfare, victim advocacy, and trauma.

Danielle is a paid member of the Red Ventures freelance Education Integrity Network.