What’s the Difference Between an LMSW and LCSW?

Written by Gayle Morris BSN, MSN
Last Updated: July 2023

Licensed master social worker (LMSW) and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) are terms used for credentials and the professionals who have them. Each represents a different role, career path, and license requirements. Both types of social workers help individuals and families navigate challenging circumstances.

Similarities and key differences among these roles may make it difficult to choose the right career path. This guide explores the licensure requirements and career paths for LMSWs vs. LCSWs. You'll find information about education and experience requirements, job duties, and scope of practice.

Comparing LMSW vs. LCSW Licensure Requirements

Education and Experience Requirements

Comparing the education and experience requirements for an LMSW vs. LCSW reveals one of their significant differences. Both licenses require a master of social work (MSW) degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Most master's programs require applicants to have a bachelor of social work or a bachelor's degree in a related discipline such as psychology or sociology. LMSW and LCSW candidates can complete the same master's programs. However, LCSW candidates must complete additional post-graduate clinical hours, while aspiring LMSWs do not.

Many MSW programs require clinical practicum hours during the program for all students. This experience lays the foundation for the 3,000-4,000 supervised post-graduate clinical hours required for LCSW licensure.

Examination Requirements

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) helps regulate social work licensing examinations required by most states. It is important to note that the license requirements vary among states.

Your social work board approves the licensing exam that aligns with your goals: the master's, advanced generalist, or clinical exam. Some states require additional exams to be licensed. The master's exam is a prerequisite for an LMSW, and the clinical exam is required for LCSW licensure. In some states, social workers in nonclinical settings take the advanced generalist exam.

Both exams include questions about human development, professional relationships and ethics, assessment and intervention planning, and interactions with clients. The clinical exam also includes questions about clinical knowledge and the social worker's ability to apply this specialized knowledge to scenario-based questions.

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Comparing LMSW vs. LCSW Careers

Job Duties and Workplaces

LMSWs and LCSWs help people navigate difficult situations, such as substance misuse or post-traumatic stress disorder. Other patient populations that benefit from the expertise of social workers include children, the elderly, the poor, and those with disabilities.

Social workers holding either license can work in many different settings, including community organizations, hospitals, government agencies, and mental health facilities. Social workers can work at the micro, mezzo, or macro level.

Micro social work typically focuses on individuals and families through one-on-one counseling or small group assessment. In the mid-level or mezzo, social workers' primary focus is on problem-solving for systems of clients or groups within organizations, like small communities or schools.

Social workers can also operate at the macro level to address societal challenges and improve quality of life. This big-picture work is often provided by LMSWs, while individuals with LCSW credentials perform micro social work.

Scope of Practice

Comparing the scope of practice among LMSWs vs. LCSWs reveals their most significant difference. An LCSW is a more advanced degree offering an increased practice scope.

A social worker with an LMSW license can work directly with clients and provide case management, but they must work under the supervision of an LCSW to provide psychotherapy. However, after thousands of post-graduate clinical experience, social workers with LCSW licensure can independently provide counseling services and crisis intervention.

Additionally, an LMSW can work in an administrative role to help address the well-being of groups and individuals. LCSWs focus on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of people experiencing behavioral disorders and mental and emotional concerns.

However, it is crucial to note that a social worker's scope of practice varies from state to state. Make sure to check with your state's social work board to determine the licenses and scope of practice allowed.

Growth Projections and Salary

The career outlook for social workers is robust. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a faster-than-average 9% rise in social worker employment from 2021-2031, with the highest employment found in child, family, and school social workers. Healthcare social workers and those working in mental health and substance misuse comprise the next two most popular categories.

The areas with the greatest growth are those commonly filled by social workers with LCSW licenses. According to Payscale data from August 2023, the average annual salary for an LMSW is $57,000 per year, and the average for an LCSW is $63,880 per year.

Several factors influence a social worker's salary level, including the level of their licensure. Other factors include location, experience, and additional certifications.

LMSW vs. LCSW: Choosing Your Pathway

Choose a path that aligns with your career goals and interests. In many states, an LMSW may qualify you for advanced opportunities and may meet your professional goals.

Another option is to take the ASWB master's examination and get the required number of supervised clinical hours to take the ASWB clinical exam. This advanced path enables you to work independently in clinical practice.

In either case, it is essential to check the state requirements for a social work license where you plan to live and work. Not all states offer LMSW and LCSW licenses. For example, Michigan offers only the LMSW and not a clinical license.

At this time, there is no reciprocity among states — if you move to another state, you must apply for a new license in that state. As you make your career decisions, pay close attention to your state social work board regulations and the licenses offered in your state.

Frequently Asked Questions About LMSW vs. LCSW

How is the LCSW exam different from the LMSW exam?

The LMSW tests candidates on professional relationships, human development, and interactions with clients. The LCSW exam contains the same types of questions but requires candidates to also apply specialized clinical knowledge in scenario-based questions.

Can you go from LMSW to LCSW?

Yes — after graduating with an MSW, you can take the LMSW exam and submit the remaining documentation for LMSW credentials in your state. After completing the required post-graduate supervised clinical hours, you can take the ASWB clinical exam and submit the remaining documentation for an LCSW license.

Do LCSWs have more experience than LMSWs?

LCSWs have more clinical experience than LMSWs. During an MSW, most schools require clinical practicum hours for all students. However, LCSWs must complete an additional 3,000-4,000 clinical hours to earn LCSW licenses.

What can LCSWs do that LMSWs cannot?

Social workers with LCSW licenses can independently provide clinical therapy to individuals and families. An LMSW can only provide therapy to patients and families while supervised by an LCSW.