LMSW vs. LCSW: Which Is Right For You?

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social work is a profession with a clear mission: “to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” As such, it can be an especially rewarding vocation for anyone passionate about justice, advocacy, or making a direct impact on the lives of those in need.

To make that impact, developing the right skills and competencies is critical, both through formal education and then through licensing. A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can pave the way to advanced professions within the social work industry. It is often a requirement for licensure in the field, and those licenses take two key forms: Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

Those pursuing licensure should consider the differences between the LMSW vs. LCSW designations, so they can choose the right direction for their career.

What Is an LMSW?

The LMSW and LCSW licenses vary in some critical ways, and examining each before committing to one or the other is important. To start, what is the LMSW designation?

An LMSW license certifies that an individual possesses the requisite high-level social work skills to work in a variety of settings — including entry-level, supervised clinical work. However, they cannot work as extensively in clinical settings and often require supervision from an LCSW in clinical and therapeutic settings. LMSW certification is often considered a baseline for clinical social work.

LMSWs have earned MSWs and typically help coordinate services and resources for individuals and their families, as well as groups. They may also work for nonprofits or government agencies, serving as advocates for underserved and vulnerable populations.

What Is an LCSW?

By contrast, a full clinical certification is what an LCSW is. It is more specialized than an LMSW, and it opens up higher-level clinical positions than would typically be available with an LMSW. In particular, an LCSW allows the license holder to engage in unsupervised clinical practice.

LCSWs can go into private practice or take on clinical roles ― which typically involve skills such as psychotherapy ― in organizational settings. They are able to perform assessments and build client treatment plans. An LCSW also lays the groundwork for a person who wants to move into clinical supervision, as the certification is required for such roles.

How to Obtain Social Work Licenses

Despite the differences between the LMSW vs. LCSW designations, they both require completing an MSW.

However, the requirements for obtaining each license can vary significantly by state. The Association for Social Work Boards (ASWB) serves as a licensing hub for different states, providing examination and certification services in collaboration with state boards. ASWB administers social work licensure exams that licensed applicants must complete that highlight some of the key skill differences between the LMSW and LCSW.

What Is the Difference Between an LMSW and LCSW?

There is a great deal of crossover in the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for both licensing paths, but what is the difference between an LMSW and LCSW? Based on exam outlines from ASWB, some areas of commonality and distinction between the licenses include the following:

Human Growth and Development

Both exams cover key topics in human growth and development. However, the LMSW exam focuses on concepts of abuse and neglect and diversity, social justice, and oppression, whereas the LCSW exam places a larger focus on human behavior in the social environment.

Psychotherapy, Clinical Interventions, and Case Management

The LCSW exam covers topics around psychotherapy, clinical interventions, and case management in a portion of the exam that makes up 27% of all materials covered. The LMSW assessment, on the other hand, includes primary sections on assessment and intervention planning, as well as interventions with clients/client systems that, taken together, make up 48% of the exam.

Professional Values and Ethics

The portion of the exams that focuses on professional values and ethics is similar across both tests, highlighting the way social workers will often face similar issues when it comes to maintaining professionalism, living up to the values of the industry, working with patients, and managing patient data ethically. Supervisors or individuals in private practice may need a deeper understanding of regulatory laws and systemic best practices, as they are responsible for defining operations where they work, and some fine distinctions in the exams cover that. However, ethical issues are equally relevant across the profession.
Group of students smiling and sitting together in a seminar.

These exam topics demonstrate some of the crossover between the two licenses. They include many similar skills, areas of knowledge, and abilities. As such, the distinction between the LMSW vs. LMCW designations is not as simple as saying the LMSW is more general and the LCSW is more focused and clinical.

The LMSW serves as the first step to social work in clinical settings, even if it is not sufficient for full clinical practice. The LCSW is the final step in providing clinical social work care. This is evidenced in the salary ranges for these roles. PayScale indicates that the median annual salary for LMSWs is $52,000, while the median annual salary for LCSWs is $59,339 as of 2021.

Prepare for Licensure with an MSW

MSW degree programs can prepare students for a wide range of high-level occupations in the field by providing the overarching industry knowledge and highly specific practical expertise. They can open doors to advanced positions in the field and lay the groundwork for licensure.

The online Masters of Social Work at Regis College can help students navigate the upper reaches of the social work sector, covering materials that help them prepare for the LMSW exam. With two tracks to choose from — Traditional and Advanced Standing — the online MSW program can prepare students for both LMSW and LCSW licensure. Explore the curriculum and begin working toward becoming a social worker today.


Recommended Readings

How to Pass the LMSW Exam

What Work Environments Are Possible with an MSW?

What You Can Learn About Social Work and Administration in an MSW Program



Association of Social Work Boards

Association of Social Work Boards, Content Outlines

Indeed, A Guide To Becoming a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

National Association of Social Workers, Why Choose the Social Work Profession?

PayScale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

PayScale, Salary for Certification: Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)