LMSW vs. LCSW: What’s the Difference Between License Types?

Written by Ann Feeney
Last Updated: July 2023

Becoming a licensed master of social work (LMSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) both require you to earn a master of social work (MSW) and enable you to practice social work. However, the scope of practice and required experience and examination differ significantly.

Discover what you need to know to make the LCSW vs. LMSW decision with this informative guide. Learn more about these options today to help plan your career.

Eligibility Differences between LMSW and LCSW

While the specifics for earning a social work license vary by state, the general LMSW vs. LCSW differences remain consistent. You must have a diploma from an accredited master’s program in social work, possess a certain number of hours of supervised experience, and pass an Association of School Work Boards (ASWB) examination.

However, the LCSW requires more experience and authorizes you to offer clinical services, diagnose mental health conditions, and provide counseling. An LMSW typically practices under the supervision of an LCSW while earning the experience to qualify for LMSW licensure.

  • Years to Become: If you have a bachelor of social work, an MSW degree typically requires one year of additional education or two years if you have a bachelor’s degree in another field. For the states that require experience, an LMSW typically must complete 2,000 hours of supervised experience. LCSW credentials typically require approximately 3,000 hours of supervised experience. Specific LMSW vs. LCSW experience requirements vary by state, so make sure to check your local board’s requirements.
  • ASWB Exam: Both licenses require you to pass an ASWB examination. LMSWs must take the master’s examination, while LCSWs complete the clinical examination.
  • Supervised Experience: Depending on the state, an LMSW typically requires approximately 2,000 hours (about one year of full-time work) of supervised experience. An LCSW typically must complete 3,000 hours.

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Career Differences between LMSW and LCSW

An LCSW is one of the higher levels of social work license in most states. LCSWs can perform clinical work, diagnose mental health conditions, and counsel clients. While they may still provide other social work services, such as identifying resources and making referrals, most LCSWs focus on counseling. An LMSW is licensed to conduct assessments and refer clients to resources but not provide counseling.

Career Path Differences

  • Level of Social Work: One of the major LMSW vs. LCSW distinctions is the scope of practice. An LMSW typically focuses on case management and may perform supervised clinical work. LCSWs can provide clinical services, such as diagnosing and counseling.
  • Specialty: While both LCSWs and LMSWs may specialize in areas such as substance misuse, child and family, healthcare, or gerontology, only LCSWs are licensed to provide counseling for their clients.
  • Salary:Salary ranges are another important LMSW vs. LCSW distinction. According to Payscale data from July 2023, an LMSW makes an average annual salary of $56,000, while LCSWs earn an average of $63,810.
  • Job titles: An LCSW is authorized to supervise LMSWs, making them more likely to work in manager, director, or other supervisory social work roles. LMSWs more commonly work as case managers than LCSWs. Both roles can have titles such as medical social worker, school social worker, etc. LCSWs with doctorates may also pursue academia.

Day-to-Day Differences

  • Responsibilities: One of the most significant LMSW vs. LCSW differences is day-to-day responsibilities. An LMSW is less likely to have supervisory responsibilities, although they may supervise entry-level staff. LCSWs may supervise LMSWs and are authorized to provide counseling, while LMSWs are not.
  • Populations Served: LCSWs may spend more time with clients whose conditions require counseling, such as people with substance misuse disorders and people experiencing depression. LMSWs may spend more time with populations experiencing difficulties meeting more material needs.
  • Work Settings: LCSWs may work more in settings where counseling is needed, such as medical settings, palliative care, and hospice. LMSWs are more likely to work in organizations that focus on needs that do not necessarily require mental health support, such as hunger relief.

LMSW vs. LCSW: Which One is Right for You?

The LMSW vs. LCSW decision is not necessarily an either/or binary. Many social workers start with LMSW credentials and later pursue LCSW licensure after earning the required experience. Similarly, if you are unsure which area of social work best suits your long-term goals and interests, you can gain experience for your LMSW while learning more about work as an LCSW.

You may find case management and focusing more on social determinants of health to be more satisfying than counseling, for example. This is a personal decision with no objective right or wrong choice, just the best choice for your personal and professional goals.

  • LMSW: An LMSW can focus on developing experience to become an LCSW or on more generalist work, such as case management. You can also use your experience to become a community organizer or agency administrator to focus on macro practice.
  • LCSW: An LCSW career is ideal for those who want to make an individual difference through counseling. Demand for mental health care is high in most parts of the country, along with substance misuse treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions About LMSW and LCSW

Is it better to get an LMSW or LCSW?

The LMSW vs. LCSW question does not have a single objective answer. If you prefer case management and helping meet material needs, an LMSW may be your ideal license. If offering counseling for individuals or groups seems more appealing, then an LCSW may be a better choice.

Can an LMSW diagnose?

One of the biggest LMSW vs. LCSW distinctions is that only an LCSW can diagnose mental health conditions. However, an LMSW can perform some of the assessments that help LCSWs form diagnoses and provide treatment.

Is the LCSW exam hard?

The first-time pass rate for the clinical examination was 76.1% from 2011-2021, with relatively small changes from year to year. The total pass rate for the same period was 87.7%. This figure indicates that the examination is not especially hard for most students who adequately prepare.

Which states recognize the LMSW license?

Licensing varies by state, but most have some form of master’s degree licensing. Some, like California, use other terminology for licenses that require a master’s degree. Check with your state board for the specific license requirements for your jurisdiction. Many states allow licensing by endorsement if you have an LMSW from one state and want to practice in another.