LISW | Licensed Independent Social Worker

A Complete Guide for Steps To Become an LISW: Education, Exams, Duties, Jurisdictions, Accreditation and Much More

Less often, a LISW will be involved in policy formation with various governmental or corporate organizations acting as a consultant who provides expertise based on various social work theories. For example, an LISW might assist in developing a new public health strategy in order to assist the agency they are working with to maximize buy-in by prospective targets of this policy change. This is done by using cutting edge social work theories such as trauma informed care, equity & inclusion and cultural competency.

The third and final career track is to work in a clinical research capacity designing studies and interpreting data so new social work theory and techniques can be developed.

The Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) has a great degree of latitude in the kind of work environment they will work in, as well as what sorts of job functions they will perform as social workers. It’s a great license for those who wish to maximize their job opportunities as well as career flexibility in the social work field.



Why Become a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW)?

The Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) designation gives one quite a bit of flexibility to pursue social work practice in a manner that fits your career goals. For some, this will be involved in direct client contact in a clinical setting where the LISW can design and implement case by case therapy plans. There are even several very different clinical environments a LISW can work within, depending on which portion of the population you feel most comfortable, or called to work with. Other LISW’s will want to work in either a policy creation, or clinical research capacity. Those who choose the clinical research route can develop entirely new therapeutic approaches based on advancing social work theory through experimentation and clinical studies. For those who wish to put theory into practice and help impact society on a larger level, the Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) can assist policy makers at an organizational, or governmental level to implement these theories through new procedures and policies informed by social work theory. In every career path an LISW might take there is the opportunity to help individuals and society as a whole, in either a direct, or indirect manner.

Steps to Become a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW)

The first step towards becoming a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) is to understand the educational requirements and then to develop a plan for how you want your education to proceed. Different Social Work programs will have different specializations and degree concentrations they offer. That’s why you will want to develop a plan of action in regards to the career path you want to pursue before embarking on your education. You will need to complete the following steps to become a Licensed Independent Social Worker:

    1. You will need to complete your Bachelor’s of Social Work degree. Some Master’s programs will also accept you into their program if you have one of a number of closely related degrees. These include degrees in Counseling, Psychology and Sociology. For many programs, they will show a distinct preference for candidates who have their Bachelor’s of Social Work, especially those that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
    2. The next step is to find a Master’s of Social Work program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Unlike the bachelor’s most states require that your Master’s program be accredited by the CSWE. You will also want to find a Master’s program with the degree concentration that matches your career goals.
    3. You will then need to obtain your state’s requisite Supervised Clinical Hours. This may vary from state to state based on the states’ licensure board. However, most states require a minimum of 3000 supervised clinical hours and 150 of these hours must be in the form of direct contact hours with a client that are supervised by an LISW. Most states cap the number of hours you can be credited with at no more than 1500 in a given calendar year. Due to variation among states, you will want to be sure to check your state’s requirements.
    4. Next you will need to pay the fee and pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Advanced Generalist or Clinical Level Exam.
    5. Apply and pay the fee with your state board to receive your Licensed Independent Social Worker license.
    6. After you have your license you will be required to also complete ongoing continuing education units (CEUs), This may vary from state to state, but most states require between 40 to 50 CEU’s per licensure period which is usually 2 years.

What is the Difference between an LISW and a LCSW?

The Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) are more or less interchangeable with one another and have to do more with which title is protected in a given state. For example, the states of Ohio and South Carolina both recognize the title of Licensed Independent Social Worker (LICSW), but do not have an LCSW title designation. The relative job duties, responsibilities, licensure requirements and career paths are roughly equivalent for both the LISW and the LCSW.

Job Duties Expected from LISWs

An LISW has many potential working environments and career arcs. Depending on the particular organization, or the choice to open a private practice, the LISW might be expected to be able to function in any of the following capacities:

  • The LISW might work as an advisor or consultant with executives or officials in a policy advisory capacity injecting social work theories into policy creation discussions.
  • When working with decision makers the social worker can assist in ensuring the effective distribution and buy-in of stakeholders by using techniques such as culturally competent messaging to ensure that a given policy will be accepted by the target audience.
  • The first group the LISW will need to educate will be the elected officials or executives that create policy. The LISW will be expected to give informational presentations at a very professional level using multimedia to deliver social work theory in a concise and understandable way.
  • LISW’s working in clinical practice will be expected to work with new clients in a clinical setting to evaluate and develop therapeutic plans on an individual basis.
  • The LISW will be required to take extensive and accurate case notes for their clinical cases that will be understandable to other professionals with whom you will collaborate.
  • You will be expected to provide mental health therapies to clients or to oversee lower licensure tiers of social workers in their therapies ensuring they are following ethical and effective therapeutic practices.
  • You will either devise a treatment plan yourself or assist lower tier social workers in developing their own therapy plans for clinical clients.
  • LISW’s can act as consultants assisting organizations in developing models for how best to create and implement future policies that have yet to be developed so that when the organization develops policies in the future it uses the social work framework you develop
  • The LISW is expected to be able to develop and oversee other social workers in expanding research in clinical settings for those who choose to work in the research branch of the field.

Role of the LISW in Social Work

The Role of the Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) in social work is tremendously varied depending on the career arc you choose. The three primary branches are: Mental health therapy in a clinical setting of which there can be many specializations, policy creation within an organization or governmental body, and clinical research to expand and innovate in the realm of social work theory.

For those working in a clinical therapy setting, the evaluation of new clients to determine what their personal needs are in therapy will be your first role. After determining the specifics of a case, you will be expected to perform the role of developing a tailored therapy based on social work theory around mental health and how to assist your client through a culturally competent, trauma informed and strengths based approach.

Policy creation as a Licensed Independent Social Worker will involve two main tiers. Educating the policy makers and stakeholders themselves on social work theory. The second tier is the creation of policy itself acting in an advisory capacity to assist community or organizational leaders in tailoring messaging to the segment of society or their organization whose behavior you wish to modify. By having a firm grasp of the concepts of cultural competency (which can be micro targeted for corporate culture, or regional needs based on population) and equity and inclusion, the social worker can help policy makers to ensure that their message will reach the broadest possible audience in the target group and for that audience to understand and accept the shifts in policy. Usually, the messaging itself is more important to customize than the actual policy as how the policy is communicated becomes the key to whether or not it is implemented in an effective manner.

The research avenue is one that will require the most innovation and critical thinking on the part of the Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW). As you act as the tip of the spear of social work development, being able to design studies that produce relevant data and interpreting that data in a way that becomes actionable for other social workers is your primary role. You will act as the fountainhead for new social work theory that can influence social work and society as a whole for years to come.

Career Opportunities as an LISW

There are many different career opportunities for those holding a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) designation. Perhaps you want to help address the opioid crisis currently ravaging much of the country by introducing effective therapies to help people beat addiction, with LISW licensure you will be able to work in addiction recovery at clinical or supervisory level. If you feel more called to research you can work to develop cutting edge theory for social work that can help other social workers develop revolutionary therapies that will help people throughout the social work field. Other people might want to work to assist governments and large organizations increase their equity and inclusion by acting as a policy creation consultant. Other social workers might wish to pursue a career of direct mental health therapy in a clinical setting, while becoming their own boss and opening their own social work mental health therapy practice. An Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) licensure designation offers a wide variety of career opportunities in the states with this license.