Social Workers Private Practice: Starting Your Own Practice

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’s difficult to obtain when working in another segment of the profession. 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 profession to become. 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?

Students who pursue online Master of Social Work programs and are exploring career choices can benefit from learning about social workers’ private practice options.

Why Do Social Workers Explore Private Practice?

The benefits of private practice are a big incentive for social workers to explore establishing their own private practices. 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 the 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.
Social worker speaking with client in home setting

A final benefit is a higher potential income, according to the NASW. In some cases, this can stem from the dynamics of 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 Is a Private Practice Social Worker?

An article from the New York City chapter of the NASW suggests that one way to think of a private practice social worker is to view the social worker as setting up an independent social work agency. In addition to providing social work services, the social worker in private practice is responsible for all aspects of the agency, including performing regular accounting, overseeing client billing, marketing the practice, doing clerical work, obtaining malpractice insurance, and establishing practice policies.

When it comes to social work private practice, the NASW explains that most clinical social workers will engage in some blend of individual, family, couples, group, and play therapy. Other key practices include providing crisis intervention, providing bereavement counseling, and serving as expert witnesses in court cases or as consultants. The specifics of what you engage in are up to you 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 client base.

Types of Social Work Practices

The NASW describes social workers’ private practices as follows:

  • Private clinical practices. In private clinical practices, social workers provide services such as psychotherapy and counseling to groups, families, and individuals. Social workers in private clinical practices can also conduct clinical supervision of new social workers for licensing purposes, offer community services, or provide intervention services to corporations.
  • Private nonclinical practices. In private non-clinical practices, social workers can offer services in areas such as training and education, conflict resolution, program development and evaluation, and mediation.

How Much Does a Private Practice Social Worker Make?

Social workers’ median annual salary was $51,760 as of May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of course, the actual income of social workers in private practice depends on the caseloads they take on, whether they work full-time or part-time, and the overhead expenses they incur in operating a private practice.

According to the NASW, the fees that private practice social workers charge vary due to factors such as geographic location, the local market, and the limits of insurance reimbursement. The NASW notes that there are no professional or legal requirements related to how much social workers in private practice can charge, and it suggests surveying the fees in the location where a social worker will operate to establish a reasonable rate. Many private practice social workers charge fees based on a sliding scale or designate a segment of their caseloads for pro bono work or for clients for whom they’ll charge relatively lower fees.

It’s important for private practice social workers to consider the NASW Code of Ethics when determining their fees. Specifically, standard 1.13 states that social workers must set fees that are reasonable and fair; fees should also be commensurate with the services that social workers provide. In addition, standard 1.13 requires that, when setting fees, social workers consider their clients’ ability to pay.

Are You Ready for Private Practice?

Readiness to commit to the business side of running a private practice is key to finding success as a social worker in private practice. 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. It can take 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 maintaining skills and providing some support in insurance and legal matters.

Insurance is another key requirement for private practice, with the NASW recommending minimal coverage of $1 million per lawsuit with a $1 million maximum per policy year. The organization also recommends that social workers in private practice obtain $2 million in malpractice insurance coverage.

What Do You Need to Do to Get Started?

There’s a great deal to consider in 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 considerations include ensuring that 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 that 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. The COVID-19 pandemic has also motivated clinical social workers in private practice to begin offering virtual services.

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

Preparing for Social Work Private Practice

To go into social work private practice, you’ll need the clinical social work skills necessary to function as a counselor or therapist and become a licensed clinical social worker. 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 will prepare you for licensure and can expose you to both the big picture industry knowledge and nuanced clinical course opportunities needed to function as a private practitioner.

Take the first step toward a fulfilling social work career today.

Recommended Readings

Explore a Career as a Clinical Social Worker

Is Getting an MSW Worth It?

What You Need to Know About Social Work Licensing


National Association of Social Workers, COVID-19: Practice Guidelines for Reopening Social Work Practices

National Association of Social Workers, Read the Code of Ethics

National Association of Social Workers-Illinois Chapter, Private Practice

National Association of Social Workers-New York City Chapter, “The Joys and Challenges of Clinical Social Work in Private Practice”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers