LMSW vs. LCSW: What’s the difference?

The field of social work presents an array of professional opportunities for individuals at all levels. From schools and shelters to hospitals and government agencies, there are many settings where you can work and make an impact. 

In your quest to become a licensed social worker, you may see the acronyms LMSW and LCSW frequently. But what do they mean? They represent two common social work licenses—the licensed master social worker (LMSW) and the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Social work licenses like an LMSW and an LCSW vary from state to state. While many of the 50 states recognize at least one or both of them, some states have different levels of social work licensure available and unique requirements for licensure. Be sure to check with your state to determine the appropriate steps to become a licensed social worker.

The program cards featured on this page were last updated in September 2021. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school. 

Sponsored online social work programs

University of Denver


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months


LMSW or LCSW—which path is best for me?

Neither social work license is better or worse than the other—LMSW and LCSW designations can each lead to a fulfilling social work career. Both of these credentials require an on-campus or online Master of Social Work from a school of social work that’s been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). 

The main difference between someone with an LCSW and someone with an LMSW is that the latter works professionally to coordinate services and therapy for individuals, groups, families and communities. An LMSW can provide certain types of therapy (like psychotherapy) under the supervision of a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. An LCSW has similar responsibilities, but they hold specialized knowledge about social work in a clinical application. This allows them to provide therapy independently or supervise an LMSW.

Generally, the LMSW and LCSW licenses both indicate deep expertise and commitment to the field. But completing a master’s program and earning either license is not the only way to expand your knowledge. You can enroll in a Doctorate of Social Work program to further your research and expertise. Some states do require a master’s and doctoral degree to get your license. Check with your state licensing board to learn about the requirements.

Similarities and differences between an LMSW and an LCSW

When comparing the LMSW and LCSW licenses, it’s important to consider that they have both similarities and key differences. Either license enables you to work in the social work profession. In this section, we’ll cover the major shared responsibilities and different roles associated with the LMSW vs. LCSW licenses.


Either social work license can provide social workers with many career possibilities. Both LMSWs and LCSWs work professionally to help people or groups through tough situations such as domestic conflicts, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and medical or mental illnesses. They may choose to focus on helping specific populations like women, the elderly, children, or minorities. Since the field encompasses a lot of different specialties, LCSWs and LMSWs may start off working in a clinical setting and later decide to switch into macro practice or vice versa.  

The Association for Social Work Boards (ASWB) is a hub for state licensing information. Generally, states require that candidates for either license pass an exam that will be specific to either the LMSW or LCSW. 

Under the domain of the social work profession, both LMSWs and LCSWs must abide by social work ethics and strive for the health and safety of all their clients. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the leading professional organization for those in social work, has a code of ethics and standards of conduct that are widely recognized by social workers of all levels and in all practice settings. 

The NASW ethical values include:

  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of the person
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

These values emphasize that social workers serve to protect the people they work with, empower those who face adversity, and always act with care and compassion toward clients. 

The NASW ethical standards include a social worker’s responsibilities: 

  • To clients.
  • To colleagues.
  • In practice settings.
  • As professionals.
  • To the social work profession.
  • To the broader society.


Becoming a licensed clinical social worker or licensed master social worker comes with some major differences that determine what services social workers are allowed to provide.

An LMSW must operate under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or LCSW to provide clinical therapy or mental health services. An LCSW can independently provide these clinical services. While an LMSW license is not a requirement for getting an LCSW license, in many U.S. states, a social worker needs a minimum amount of supervised clinical hours to qualify for the LCSW license. State LCSW requirements can range from 1,500 to nearly 6,000 clinical hours under supervision, so a candidate might first need to become an LMSW to gain that experience.

Individuals with an LMSW license may work on a macro (or big-picture) level to help people, groups, and societies push for reform, champion human rights, and support vulnerable populations. LMSWs will commonly work for local, state, or national governments or nonprofits to assist communities and shape public policy.

LMSWs also work in clinical settings. In this type of role, LMSWs might hold administrative and support responsibilities, including:

  • Conducting intake for new clients.
  • Updating case files.
  • Completing billing.
  • Providing supervised psychotherapy services.
  • Assisting with treatment plan design.
  • Providing consultations.

An LCSW may take on a leadership role and spend more time providing direct care. Responsibilities might include:

  • Performing client/patient assessments.
  • Providing direct client/patient therapies.
  • Supervising LMSW psychotherapy services.
  • Building treatment plans.

Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

In some states, according to the ASWB Social Work Regulation database, the LMSW is the first master’s-level licensure one may attain without post-graduate hours. This credential equips social workers to practice non-clinical or clinical social work, although many social workers with an LMSW work in non-clinical roles. LMSWs may provide therapeutic services in a clinical setting under the supervision of an LCSW, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist.

Sponsored online social work programs

Howard University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

Syracuse University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available.

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Case Western Reserve University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years


What is an LMSW?

A licensed master social worker (LMSW) is a professional license that enables qualified individuals to practice social work in most states. An LMSW may work in a variety of care or agency settings to deliver therapy, counseling, and life-betterment services to people who need them.

LMSW Requirements

To become an LMSW you must earn an MSW degree. To get into a master’s program, you might need a Bachelor of Social Work or a social service degree in a related discipline such as sociology or psychology.

Candidates for licensure must also typically take an ASWB master’s or advanced generalist  exam to demonstrate their competence in the field. Some states require supervised experience hours following the completion of your degree to become licensed.

LMSW Salary

LMSW salaries will vary depending on a host of factors, such as geographical location, specialty, and more. The median annual salary for social workers in 2022 was $55,350, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

LMSW Careers

The BLS projects social worker employment will grow 7% from 2022 to 2032. The LMSW license can provide social workers with the chance to practice in a number of areas. For example, if you choose to go the public health route, you could work in a school as a public health educator or as a community organizer.

There may be additional education requirements for such roles. On the clinical side, you can pursue more therapeutic roles at private practices, clinics, and hospitals. In nearly any of these roles, you could be working with children, adults, or the elderly.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) license may be a good fit for someone looking to help people work through mental, emotional, or behavioral concerns. This license may enable LCSWs to diagnose clients and provide therapies or treatments independently. LCSWs may help clients accomplish goals like living with mental health disorders, working through trauma, or overcoming substance abuse.

What is an LCSW?

LCSW stands for licensed clinical social worker. This license allows qualified individuals to provide clinical services to clients independent of supervision. You typically need, at minimum, a master’s degree and two years of supervised field experience to become a licensed clinical social worker. Both LMSW and LCSW licenses can lead to an engaging professional career—but the LCSW typically has more rigorous experiential and knowledge requirements.

LCSW Programs

To become an LCSW, you need to enroll in a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work program. If you plan to work in a state where the LCSW license is recognized, exploring on-campus or online LCSW programs that are accredited, known for their rigor, and emphasize clinical practice are a great place to start. The clinical hours you accumulate in your master’s program can help lay the foundation for your work in the field—and you’ll know what to expect when completing your post-graduate experience hours.

What Does an LCSW Do? 

An LCSW supports people through various challenges by providing general counseling services, crisis intervention, mental health therapies, substance abuse support, and other key services. LCSWs work to create positive change and impact in the lives of their clients by helping them reach goals. In certain practices, LCSWs may also supervise the work of LMSWs. 

LCSWs may work in schools, hospitals, elderly care facilities, private practices, and even the courtroom—social workers are often called upon as witnesses in court cases. The main thing to remember is that this license gives them freedom and responsibility to make independent decisions about diagnosis and treatment plans. Becoming an LCSW can offer you a variety of career paths to consider.


For more information about the LMSW and LCSW licenses, here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

How long is the LMSW exam?

The LMSW exam is one of many offered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), and it is required to become a licensed master social worker in states that recognize this credential. The exam is rigorous and takes up to four hours to complete. Each LMSW exam may only be taken online at a registered testing facility. There are 170 questions on the exam, and 150 of these are scored.

In 2021, 73% of candidates passed the master exam (PDF, 1.3 MB) to obtain their social work licensure. The exam is designed to help you succeed as a social worker. If you have completed all the necessary social work education and practical experience, you have the potential to pass the exam and obtain your license.

How can I pass the ASWB exam?

While there is no guaranteed way to pass an ASWB exam, knowing what to expect can help you feel confident and prepared. ASWB exams are designed based on analyses of professional social workers and practices in the field, so the information is relevant and current. The organization uses this information to develop ASWB exam content outlines and provide candidates with an overview of topics to know heading into the exam. The ASWB also recommends taking a practice test to gauge how well you will perform on the actual exam.

How many times can you take the ASWB exam?

If you don’t perform well the first time you take an ASWB exam, you can review the diagnostic report provided following the exam to determine where you will need to improve. Certain states may limit the number of times you can take an ASWB exam—check with your state regulatory board. The ASWB requires that all candidates wait 90 days between testing attempts.

Can an LMSW diagnose?

No, an LMSW does not have the ability to diagnose clients with mental illnesses. But they can work in a variety of fields from public health to public policy. If you are passionate about one-on-one care, counseling, and therapy, you may want to consider pursuing an LCSW.

Which states recognize the LMSW license?

At least 20 states recognize the LMSW license title, including Alaska, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, and Arizona. The requirements to obtain your LMSW will vary in each jurisdiction. In states that do not offer the LMSW, there are equivalent licenses candidates may pursue.

What is the difference between an LISW vs. an LMSW?

You now know the differences between an LMSW and an LCSW, but what is an LISW? LISW stands for licensed independent social worker. LISW responsibilities are most similar to that of an LCSW. LISWs need clinical experience hours and can provide care independently. They may work in a more specialized fashion with a chosen population, such as the elderly. 

This license is offered in fewer jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, and South Carolina.

What is the difference between a licensed and an unlicensed social worker?

You typically cannot become a social worker without a license. However, some states do recognize some exempt roles and work settings (PDF, 595 KB) where a license may not be necessary. For example, in New Hampshire, social workers employed by a mental health clinic do not need a license if they perform work under supervision. In Utah, substance abuse educators do not have to be licensed. And in Vermont, foster care workers are exempt. However, having a license can help expand your career options and allow  you to advance and progress in the field.

Last updated November 2023.