Starting a private practice, and how an MSW can help

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Social worker speaking with client in home setting

Choosing the right time to move into private practice can be daunting. Licensed clinical social workers transitioning into private practice can gain freedom and agency that is difficult to obtain when working in another segment of the industry. However, private practice means being your own boss, taking full responsibility for your income, and becoming a business owner, which may not be what you go into the social work industry to do. This highlights the central question of choosing to enter private practice: Are you prepared to run your own business and take on the risks and responsibilities that come with it?


Why explore private practice?

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) highlighted some of the key benefits that come with a move to private practice, and flexibility was a common theme. Clinical social workers in private practice can set their own schedules, create the work environment they want, and determine their own processes and expectations. You don’t have to deal with office politics or typical overhead associated with trying to provide care in an agency setting. This freedom can seem like a major perk, and it isn’t the only advantage private practice social workers can gain. The NASW also pointed to the ability to focus on clinical care, keeping those skills intact and not getting overly distracted by administrative, research, and education-related tasks.

A final benefit, according to the NASW, is a higher potential income. In some cases, this can stem from the dynamics of a private practice and the income all going to yourself, but the NASW particularly emphasized how many social workers use private practice as part-time work to supplement their agency jobs, significantly adding to their earning potential.


What do private practitioners do?

When it comes to social work private practice, the NASW explained that most clinical social workers will engage in some blend of individual, family, couples, group, and play therapy. Other key practices include crisis intervention, bereavement counseling, serving as expert witnesses in court cases, or as consultants. The specifics of what you engage in are up to your own discretion in private practice, but it’s important to always keep in mind that you’ll need to maintain economic independence and may therefore need to expand the types of care services you provide to widen your patient base.


Are you ready for private practice?

In a report for the New Social Worker, an educator who teaches social work courses on setting up a private practice relayed an experience she had with a student. The individual was engaged and enthusiastic for the coursework, but when the course was completed, was happy to have realized that private practice wasn’t the right fit. This life experience served as a reminder of just how important readiness to commit to the business side of running a private practice is to finding success.

Individuals starting a private practice need to develop business and marketing skills, figure out how to manage their own time so they don’t have to constantly work, deal with insurance, and grapple with the potential isolation that comes with working alone. The New Social Worker article emphasized that it takes a great deal of motivation and willingness to be realistic with your expectations to position yourself for success.


What’s required for moving into private practice?

According to the NASW, operating in private practice will typically require formal licensure as a clinical social worker. Requirements may vary depending on the state, but the NASW recommends seeking formal certification and getting at least two years’ worth of experience in supervised clinical practice before going off on your own.

The NASW also advises that private practitioners arrange some form of supervision when they launch their private practice. It doesn’t have to be a regular occurrence, but having that third-party perspective on occasion can be vital to maintain skills development and provide some support in insurance and legal matters.

Insurance is another key requirement for private practice, with the NASW mandating minimal coverage of $1 million per lawsuit with a $1 million maximum per policy year. The organization also recommends practitioners seek $2 million in malpractice coverage.


What do you need to do to get started?

There’s a great deal to consider when launching into private practice, but a USA Today report highlights some practical steps you can take before launching a private practice. The first step is to determine your business structure, particularly if you want to function as a limited liability company or a sole proprietorship and, from there, come up with a name and register with the IRS. Other tips offered by the news source include ensuring you set up a dedicated phone system so clients can contact you and finding an office space. It’s common to seek personal solutions to this, such as using one’s mobile phone and some space in a home for an office. These can be consistent and low-cost options, but make sure you consider issues like regulatory compliance for any devices containing patient data or homeowners or condo association rules for using your residence for commercial purposes.

Other steps to take, according to USA Today, include making an effort to network with other professionals, figuring out how you’ll handle payments, and assessing how much to charge for your services.


How can an MSW prepare you for private practice?

You can’t get into private practice if you don’t have the clinical social work skills needed to function as a counselor or therapist. You’ll need to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to verify these skills. The online Master of Social Work program at Regis College emphasizes clinical practice in its curriculum and includes experiential learning under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker as part of your education. An MSW program can expose you to both the big-picture industry knowledge and nuanced clinical course opportunities needed to function as a private practitioner. An MSW will be required for licensure as well.

If your long-term social work career vision is to move into private practice, then an MSW may be a great fit for you. Contact Regis College today to find out if our online MSW is a good fit for you.


Recommended Readings:

Explore a career as a clinical social worker

What You Need to Know About Social Work Licensing



Social Workers in Private Practice: Occupational Profile from the National Association of Social Workers Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice

Private Practice: When It’s not Right For You from The New Social Worker

Frequently Asked Questions: Starting a Private Practice from the National Association of Social Workers: Massachusetts Chapter

10 Steps to Start a Private Practice in Counseling from USA Today