LMSW vs. LCSW: Learn the Differences and Which Licensure is Right for You
Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: June 2023
You’ve committed to getting your master of social work (MSW) to pursue more career opportunities but cannot decide whether to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Learn more about the differences in scope of practice, salary, and responsibilities among LCSWs vs. LMSWs to find your ideal pathway.
LMSW vs. LCSW: The Three Levels of Social Work
LMSWs and LCSWs differ in the level of social work they practice. LCSWs can work at all three levels of social work, but LMSWs can only work in macro and mezzo social work. Explore the three levels below.
- Macro Social Work: Social workers advocate for policy change, work on new policies, implement programs, and conduct research. You do not need a license to practice at this level, but LMSWs and LCSWs may choose to work on research, policy analysis, and program development at this level.
- Mezzo Social Work: Mezzo social work helps with issues such as malnutrition, substance misuse, and homelessness. LMSWs organize resources for small groups or specific populations, including nursing homes, businesses, and inner-city neighborhoods. LCSWs may engage in mezzo social work to help their clients achieve treatment goals.
- Micro Social Work: You must become an LCSW, or your state’s equivalent, to practice clinical social work at this level. Micro social workers provide resources, assessment of mental health conditions, treatment for substance misuse, and counseling on the individual level.
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LMSW vs. LCSW: A Snapshot
You’ll need an MSW degree to apply for LMSW or LCSW credentials. LMSWs and LCSWs can practice generalist social work independently. However, an LCSW has the largest scope of practice and responsibility than all other licensed social work professionals.
If you get an LCSW, you’ll need to first earn LMSW or your state’s equivalent credentials. An LMSW allows you to complete the required 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for LCSW licensure. Once you get your LCSW, you can practice clinical social work without supervision. Find out more about the differences between LMSW and LCSW licenses below.
- Eligibility Requirements: In most states, LMSWs do not have to complete supervised experience to earn licensure. However, LCSWs must complete about two years (3,000 hours) of supervised experience. LCSWs also take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical exam, while LMSWs take the ASWB master’s exam.
- Scope of Practice: An LCSW (or your state’s equivalent) has the largest scope of practice of any social work license. LMSWs can only practice generalist social work independently, but LCSWs can practice both generalist and clinical social work.
- Responsibilities: Responsibilities for LMSWs include managing case files, advocating for community resources, assessing client needs, and following up with their clients. LCSWs perform all the same responsibilities as LMSWs. They also examine, diagnose, and treat people with mental health and substance misuse conditions.
- Salary: According to Payscale data from June 2023, LCSWs earn an average salary of $63,690, while LMSWs take home $57,000 on average.
LMSW vs. LCSW Exam
Each social work license candidate must take a jurisprudence exam, along with the relevant ASWB exam: bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist, or clinical.
All exams contain sections on human development, diversity, behavior in the environment, and professional values and ethics. Topics and format vary based on the test.
To get your LMSW, you’ll need to pass the master’s exam, which focuses on client interventions, client systems, assessment, and intervention planning. If you get your LCSW, you must pass the clinical exam, which covers psychotherapy, clinical interventions, case management, and more.
LMSW vs. LCSW: Which One Is Right for Me?
Consider the scope of practice, responsibilities, and available salaries to decide whether you want to pursue LMSW or LCSW licensure. LCSWs typically earn better pay but have higher experience requirements.
If you want to practice social work at the mezzo level, creating programs to help with social issues at the group level, consider becoming an LMSW. Prioritize LCSW credentials if you want to practice at any level of social work and provide clinical services to your clients without supervision.
Frequently Asked Questions About LMSW vs. LCSW
What is the highest license level for a social worker?
The highest license levels for social workers are licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and licensed independent social worker (LISW) credentials. License type varies based on state guidelines for independent practice.
What is the difference between the ASWB master’s and clinical exam?
The ASWB clinical and master’s exams cover human development, diversity, behavior in the professional environment, and ethics. The master’s exam focuses on generalist social work topics like client interventions and client systems, while the clinical exam explores clinical practice areas of assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, and psychotherapy.
Can an LMSW have a private practice?
Yes — in some states, a licensed master social worker (LMSW) can open a generalist social work private practice. Some states require you to complete supervised experience and meet additional license requirements. You’ll still need supervision to practice clinical social work.
Is LMSW the same as LCSW?
No — a licensed master social worker (LMSW) is not the same as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). An LMSW is licensed to practice generalist social work. They assess clients’ needs and connect their clients with resources. LCSWs practice clinical social work and general social work, along with diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.