The Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is a specialist who works in a counseling capacity with patients. Trained to provide support, therapy, and mentorship to those struggling with mental and emotional health issues. The LCSW career path can be further specialized to provide services to specific sections of a community’s population.
On this page you will understand the roles of an LCSW, learn about education requirements, licensure steps, required exams, and a range of information to make decisions, whether just starting out, or expanding your career as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.
To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) one must receive the appropriate degree(s) and then go on to complete the practical training with supervised clinical hours and also go on to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) test. Most states require that you have a Master’s degree in Social Work. Some states will allow one to perform limited functions under supervision with a bachelor’s degree en route to becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, however this is always just a step in the process. No state allows the title of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) without a minimum of a Master’s degree. While some may wish to go on to get their doctorate in social work, this is not required to become a LCSW. When planning your educational path it’s good to keep in mind that a Bachelor’s in a closely related field such as sociology, social work, psychology or counseling may be accepted, however a social work degree is usually preferred by most programs and preference is given to programs that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). In some states, a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program is required to gain the title of LCSW.
Steps to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) you will need to complete the following steps:
- First you will need to receive a Bachelor’s degree in a closely related field such as Sociology, Social Work, Psychology or Counseling. Social Work degrees are given preference by Master’s programs especially if they are a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program.
- Apply for a Master of Social Work in a CSWE accredited master’s program with the degree concentration you wish to focus on.
- Accumulate the required number of supervised clinical hours, some of which will need to be completed under the direct supervision of an LCSW. The amount of hours varies depending on which state. A close approximation is roughly 3,500 hours of clinical social work practice of which 100 hours must be supervised by an LCSW and 2,000 of which must be direct contact hours with patients.
- After the completion of accumulating your clinical hours, you will need to apply for and pay the associated fee, for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical Level exam (be aware some states require, or allow you to take a different level exam, please check with your state board to ensure you take the correct exam).
- A few states will also require you to pass a jurisprudence exam.
- After passing any jurisprudence exam, as well as the ASWB test you are now eligible to receive your new title of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) from the state board.
- When it is time to renew your license, you must provide proof that you have completed 40 contact hours of continuing education. The amount of hours could vary in your state.
Because every state can define the scope of practice for clinical social workers differently, as well as the licensing/experience requirements for obtaining an LCSW, it’s important to check with the exact social work regulations in your own state that are developed by your state’s board of social work.
About the ASWB Clinical Exam
You’re generally eligible to take the ASWB Clinical exam once you’ve earned your MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited school, and have fulfilled your state’s requirements for supervised clinical social work experience.
- Step One – Typically the first step in registering for the ASWB Clinical exam is taken with your state’s board of social work. You submit your application for the LCSW credential to your state’s board of social work, and your state board will contact the ASWB to let them know you’re eligible to take the Clinical exam.
- Step Two – Once the ASWB has received your authorization to test from your state’s board of social work, you can register to take the Clinical exam with the ASWB. You can find a detailed description of this process in the ASWB’s Examination Candidate Handbook. You can register with the ASWB online, by fax/mail, or by phone at (888) 579-3926.
- Step Three– The exam is proctored by the third-party testing company Pearson Vue, which also maintains the testing sites. After you’ve registered with the ASWB they will send you information about the final registration process you must complete with Pearson Vue where you select your testing location, date, and time. You can type your zip code in here to find the testing local nearest you.
The test is a computer-based, four-option multiple-choice exam consisting of 170 questions. There’s a four-hour time limit. Currently the ASWB Clinical exam costs $260.
The Clinical exam is divided into four main sections:
- Treatment planning, assessments, and diagnoses – 30%
- Intervening clinically, psychotherapy, and case management – 27%
- Human diversity, development, and behavior – 24%
- Ethics and professional values – 19%
You can find a full outline of the ASWB Clinical exam here.
There is tremendous diversity in the roles and responsibilities for a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and depending on the job you hold within an organization they might vary considerably. Further, there is the option of becoming your own boss and setting up a private Licensed Clinical Social Worker practice. Here are some of the roles and job duties one might be expected to perform as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW):
- Providing counseling to clients at both the individual and group level around emotional and mental health issues.
- As part of any LCSW’s job you will be expected to build and maintain strong rapport with clients both in groups and on an individual basis.
- A Licensed Clinical Social Worker will be required to ensure they are able to provide accurate clinical assessments of their clients, which can include mental and emotional health and stability, as well as generalized physical assessments when dealing with clients in the grip of substance abuse.
- All Licensed Clinical Social Workers are expected to keep detailed and concise records of each client throughout their treatment, whether at the client’s behest or as part of a treatment program which may be court ordered.
- You will be expected to be able to perform professional consultations with medical professionals, therapists, physicians and even officers of the courts where appropriate
- Some research oriented Licensed Clinical Social Workers will be expected to be able to follow directions and perform research within a clinical setting either under direct supervision, or independently.
- Administrative duties may also be expected within some organizations, this is especially true of those Licensed Clinical Social Workers working within a Social Services organization which could be government or corporate in nature.
You can also become a clinical social worker by entering the field starting with a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW).
The academic prerequisites for acceptance into a CSWE-accredited MSW program are often an undergraduate degree in any field. Though there’s relevant natural overlap if you earn a bachelor’s degree in related fields like:
- Social Work
- Child Development
Internships and field placements are a part of any good MSW program and these will help you accrue the necessary supervised clinical social work experience required by your state to become a clinical social worker.
Once you’ve earned your MSW, many states have provisions that allow you to work as a social worker to gain your requisite hours of supervised clinical work experience, upon which time you can register to take the ASWB Clinical exam and become an LCSW upon passage.
For states that don’t have this provision, you’ll need to work in the capacity as an LSW until you’ve met your state’s supervised clinical social work experience requirements.
The LCSW Role in Society
The Licensed Clinical Social Worker provides a tremendous array of services for their community. While for most LCSW’s, the most frequent career involves mental health counseling, there are a number of sub-specializations in the field that can also be of tremendous service. However, it is impossible to overstate how critical the guidance of a LCSW can be to give their patient insight into their emotional underpinnings, as well as to find the strength and gain the tools necessary to find healing around past traumas and self-destructive patterns. It’s also important to consider the impact of a marriage and family counseling specialized LCSW. A Marriage and Family Counseling specialist can assist families and married partners in confronting and working through their issues. This is done in a wide variety of ways including facilitating dialogues and ensuring that everyone’s needs are heard and where appropriate met by other family members. The power of this kind of dialogue and healing has resulted in innumerable marriages being saved that might otherwise have ended in a painful divorce. The school counseling LCSW specialist can assist their young students through a variety of means. This includes proper assessment of any psychological issues they may be struggling with to help ensure that their unique needs are met. This kind of proper assessment and assistance can be invaluable in helping students blossom within their school setting and lead to more successful and happy adulthoods. There are myriad ways that a LCSW can provide assistance to individuals, family and groups and by extension society as a whole.
Holding an LCSW credential opens the door to independent practice and advanced clinical social work positions with non-profits, schools, mental health clinics, and drug addiction treatment centers, to name just a few.
While statistics on clinical social workers are not tracked nationally, numbers for MSW degrees are, and those are one benchmark for measuring the growth of clinical social workers.
The percentage of social workers earning an MSW degree versus a bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW) is steadily increasing. Since the year 2000 the number of MSWs has risen by 55%. In 2015 nationwide there were 26,329 MSW degrees awarded versus 21,164 BSWs. In fact, 45% of social workers nationwide hold an MSW or higher, and that number is increasing.
Impact on Communities
The Licensed Clinical Social Worker has a profound impact on their patients, and communities on a whole. The wonderful ways that society is influenced and aided by LCSW’s is nearly impossible to overstate, but here are just a few examples of the ways in which a Licensed Clinical Social Worker can positively impact society:
- LCSW’s have been shown to decrease in juvenile crime rates and recidivism through work in half-way houses and school settings with juvenile offenders
- Licensed Clinical Social Workers who work in counseling and marriage and family therapy help to lower domestic violence rates
- School Counselor LCSW’s have been shown to increase graduation rates for students
- LCSW’s who work in school settings have been shown to increase the emotional wellbeing of students and thereby lessen stress and increase happiness of teachers
- Social Service agencies that employ Licensed Clinical Social Workers often have a noticeable uptick in efficiency due to Cultural Competency and other client based techniques such as Trauma Informed Care
- Policy studies driven by Licensed Clinical Social Workers who have specialized in policy often achieve excellent results due to understanding of Cultural Competency and Trauma Informed policy making which in the past was poorly understood.
It’s difficult to overstate all the incredibly positive benefits society enjoys due to the tireless efforts of well-educated and highly motivated Licensed Clinical Social Workers. Your ability to impact individuals, families, your community and society as a whole is only limited by your work ethic, vision and enthusiasm. Start taking steps to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) today!
The impact of clinical social workers on local communities is a ripple-effect felt throughout all strata of society. As clinical social workers increase their numbers nationally, especially in light of recent demands for a greater societal emphasis on social justice and well-being rather than barrel-of-a-gun heavy-handed policing and criminalization, we’ve seen positive developments like:
- The public high school graduation rate has increased from 79% in 2011 to 85% in 2017
- Arrests for juvenile crime are down from a high of 8,476 in 1996 to 2,167 in 2018 (per 100,000 people)
- Juvenile gang murders are down by over 50% from 673 in 2010 to 308 in 2018
- Rates of non-fatal domestic violence fell by 63% between 1994 and 2012
The net gains to local communities because of clinical social workers are immeasurable and invaluable. There’s no time like the present to join the honored ranks of clinical social workers and make your mark in your local community.
Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) vs. Licensed Social Workers (LSWs)
The common differences between Clinical Social Workers and Social Workers are:
- Clinical social workers can work independently without supervision, while LSWs often must be supervised or work within an agency.
- Clinical social workers have more experience and education than LSWs, with LSW typically being an entry-level social work credential.
- Clinical social workers can use advanced psycho-therapeutic and counseling techniques combined with in-depth medical knowledge to address the mental and emotional health issues of individuals, families, and groups, while LSWs are only permitted to use generalized techniques to address broader less-specialized issues.
Clinical social workers can specialize in a wide range of social work sub-fields including:
- Mental health
- Substance abuse
- Marriage and family counseling
- Education and school counseling
- Medical social work
- Public health
- Higher education
LCSWs can generally work everywhere that a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) can, as well as independently and in more advanced higher-level positions.
LCSW vs Psychologist
LCSWs and psychologists share plenty in common but there are also key differences between the two. Both professionals treat clients with mental and behavioral health issues. Becoming a licensed psychologist and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) takes years of education, requires completing a period of supervised practice, and passing a national examination.
Key differences come into focus when you compare the scope of practice for LCSWs and psychologists.
LCSWs use social work theories and methods to diagnose and treat psychosocial dysfunctions, mental disabilities, and behavioral disorders. Treatments and methods can include :
- Case management
Psychologists use their expertise in psychology to treat their clients for issues relating to mental health, behavioral health, human interactions, and human relations. Psychologists are considered to be health services providers whose treatments include:
- Therapy and psychotherapy
- Psychological testing
- Psychological evaluations
One of the key differences between LCSWs and psychologists is education. LCSWs draw on an education that covers topics including psychology, sociology, and cultural studies. Psychologists focus primarily on psychology, and there are many different branches within this field, such as abnormal psychology, cultural psychology, and clinical psychology.
The level of education required to become a professional in either field is also different. LCSWs must earn a master’s degree in Social Work, while psychologists must obtain a doctoral degree in Psychology.
Each state makes its own laws for scopes of practice and licensing, so any comparison between psychologists and LCSWs is general.
LCSW vs LPC
There is a lot of common overlap between licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs), but there are also some key differences.
Both professionals work with clients to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders. Both are qualified to treat clients for addictive disorders. It takes a master’s degree, supervised clinical experience, and passage of a national exam to become an LCSW or LPC.
However, you can get a sense of where these two professions diverge when you look at the foundations on which each base their treatment techniques and therapies.
When LCSWs engage in social work, they’re being informed by things like:
- Psychosocial concepts
- Biopsychosocial concepts
- Holistic approaches
- Consideration of entire social systems
When LPCs engage in the practice of licensed professional counseling, they use techniques and therapies based on :
- Psychoeducation methods
- Understanding of interpersonal relationships
- Cognitive-behavioral approaches
Each state makes its own laws for scopes of practice and licensing, so any comparison between LCSWs and LPCs is general.
LCSW vs LICSW
The distinction between a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) is a matter of state definitions of scopes of practice. Both types of professionals must complete the same national exam, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical exam. Both must earn a master’s degree in Social Work, and both must complete a period of supervised experience.
Because each state can define its professional social work titles and scopes of practice differently it’s difficult to comment on specific rules that apply throughout the country. However some generalizations can be made about common ways LCSWs and LICSWs are different. In states that offer both LCSW and LICSW licenses:
- The LICSW license tends to be the most senior-level credential, requiring a greater amount of supervised experience and perhaps additional specific qualifying education
- As its name implies, the LICSW license permits independent unsupervised practice of clinical social work, often extending to the ability to bill third parties and operate a private business; when a state features both types of licenses then the LCSW typically practices with a lesser level of autonomy
In many states the LCSW scope of practice is defined to include independent practice. In these states this makes LCSWs and LICSWs effectively the same in all but title, a point that is often confusing to an outsider.
LCSW vs LMFT
There is a lot in common between Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs), and there are also some key differences.
For similarities, both professions require a master’s degree, passing a national exam, and the completion of supervised experience. LCSWs can engage in the provision of social work services to individuals, couples, and families. Similarly, many of the services LMFTs provide to individuals, couples, and families have significant overlap with those provided by LCSWs. Both professionals are qualified to diagnose and treat mental or emotional disorders, and both take a holistic approach to mental health care.
The difference between LCSWs and LMFTs starts to come into focus when you look at the domain and context of their practice.
LCSWs approach issues from a psychosocial angle, a perspective that emphasizes the social aspect of mental and emotional disorders, with the aim of improving functioning from a social or community standpoint.
LMFTs approach issues within the context of family systems and primary relationships, with the goal of improving functioning specifically within these domains. Within this context MFTs treat issues like:
- Adolescent drug abuse
- Marital conflict and distress
LCSWs can also treat clients for those issues, but the difference is they do it in a context that emphasizes social functioning and community integration.