Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) vs. Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Mental health and social work often overlap in the scope of practice and professional involvement in human services. A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) both practice within the realm of mental health and social sciences, but have different areas and populations of focus in providing services. Below is a review of the similarities and differences between the two licensures. 

What Is an LMFT?

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) are master’s level mental health professionals that practice psychological interventions geared towards individuals, couples, and families. LMFTs specialize in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of mental health and interrelationship issues present within the family unit and aim to optimize the functioning of the family and its members. LMFTs function from a solution-focused perspective where clinicians enter the clinician enters a therapeutic relationship with clients working towards realistic and attainable goals where the course of treatment typically spans the course of ten to twelve sessions. LMFTs have a clinical focus on tackling issues with clients and take into consideration how each individual influences the family dynamics. 

What Is an LCSW?

Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) are mental health and social services providers who focus services on individuals and community work. They are trained in providing treatment to vulnerable populations in the areas of health, mental health, diversity, and social issues. LCSWs can practice in various settings similar to LMFTs including private practice, hospitals, in-patient and outpatient treatment centers, schools, and rehabilitation centers, and focus primarily on the individual’s needs and community support to ensure continuity of care.

Differences and Similarities Between LMFTs and LCSWs

What does an LMFT do?

LMFTs focus on clinical and interrelationship issues of individuals and their influence on the functioning of a family unit. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded the following as the most common work environments for LMFTs:

  • Individual and family services (29%)
  • Offices of other health practitioners (24%)
  • Self-employed workers/private practice (13%)
  • Outpatient care centers (11%)
  • State government (excluding education and hospitals) (7%)

What does an LCSW do?

LCSWs work with a wide population including individuals, couples, families, and groups, but primarily focus on treatment centered around an individual’s needs. LCSWs provide assistance in dealing with life challenges and mental health struggles. An important facet of social work is advocacy for clients, which is achieved through directing clients towards and/or utilizing community or other healthcare resources to help achieve goals. Highlighted below are the most common work environments of LCSWs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Individual and family services (18%)
  • Local government (excluding education and hospitals) (15%)
  • Ambulatory healthcare services (14%)
  • State government (excluding education and hospitals) (14%)


Job Outlook and Salary

The Department of Labor Statistics has projected the growth of LMFTs to be approximately 16% in the next decade, which is higher than the national average. This drastic increase could be attributed to the increasing awareness of mental health, and a growing number of individuals and families seeking mental health professionals for ongoing issues. As of 2021, the median annual pay for MFTs nationally is $49,880, with hourly rates at an average of $24.00, with salaries ranging from $37,050 – $96,520. 

LCSWs have also seen steady growth over the last few years which is projected to increase by 9% over the next decade, much higher than other occupations in the United States. The median annual wage as of 2021 was $50,390 (higher than the national average) with a range of $36,520 – $82,840.

How to Become an LMFT

In pursuing a license as an LMFT, the program you choose paves the way for your career trajectory. In choosing the right program, you want to make sure that it sets you up for licensure upon graduation. The best way to be sure of this is to choose a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) or the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). These accreditation bodies are governed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). Accredited programs follow guidelines and standards set by the AAMFT that ensures you have all the tools needed to be a competent mental health professional ready to obtain licensure. 

During the last year of your MFT program, you would be required to complete a clinical practicum. This is practical training that takes place on a placement site where you would complete the program requirement of supervised clinical experience hours. Upon completing all the necessary coursework and the needed practicum hours, you would then register for and take the state or national licensing examination for MFTs. This exam is governed by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB). Upon passing this examination, along with all other credentials, you would then apply for your initial licensure as an LMFT Associate (LMFT-A). 

Being an LMFT-A, you would be able to work full-time and this status is a probationary period during which you would have to accrue about 3000 supervised clinical hours by a board-approved supervisor where 1500 hours would be direct services with patients and 1500 indirect (including paperwork, consultation, documentation, etc.). After you have completed these required hours, typically over the span of two years, you will upgrade licensure to an LMFT, when you will be able to practice as an independent clinician. 
Throughout your graduate education and career, it is important to keep up to date on changes or updates in your state board. Information on state boards and requirements can be accessed here. The AAMFT is the overarching governing body of all state boards where they collaboratively set the guidelines and standards for accreditations, obtaining licensure, maintaining licensure, professional guidelines, and career development opportunities.

How to Become an LCSW

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker is a licensed individual that has graduated from an accredited institution, had previous licensure in the field of social work, and has accrued 3000 hours of clinical experience (depending on the state of licensure) in order to qualify for an LCSW. The Association for Social Work Boards (ASWB) is the governing body that regulates graduate accreditation, clinician competence, and sets the guidelines and regulations for licensure-related activities.

The first step in becoming an LCSW is obtaining a bachelor’s degree. While a bachelor’s degree in social work is not a requirement to pursue a graduate degree in the field, it may provide a good foundation of what to expect in graduate school. Upon obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you would then seek further education of a graduate degree in social work. It is important that the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), as it is a requirement for licensure upon graduation.

Upon successful graduation, you would then have to complete the ASWB licensure examination and apply through your state board for initial licensure as a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW), which is a probationary license until you accrue approximately 3000 supervised clinical hours to qualify for upgraded licensure. Unlike an LMFT licensure, the 3000 supervised hours are not specifically direct or indirect services, and the requirements can vary by state.

The next step would be to successfully complete the national clinical social work licensing examination through the ASWB and apply for your LCSW licensure through your state board. ASWB provides information on examinations, the procedure for licensure, and resources for state, educational, and supervisory requirements.

Which Suits Me Better?

While there are many similarities between LMFTs and LCSWs, the differences boil down to the scope of practice, personal skills, interests, and approaches to mental health. LMFTs approach mental health interventions from a systems approach and tackle individual struggles with a clinical foundation. There is an emphasis on psychopathology in comparison to LCSWs, and LMFTs limit the therapeutic scope to the microcosm of interrelationships within the family unit. 

A career in social work is fulfilling in a broader sense where providers tackle mental health and systemic issues pertaining to the individuals themselves, focusing on social and socioeconomic circumstances. LCSWs provide a holistic approach to assessing and addressing client concerns whereas other mental health professionals focus more on the clinical aspect of mental health issues.

Being an LMFT may suit you better should you want to pursue a clinically-based career dealing with interrelationships and the simultaneous development of individuals as they improve the family system. An LCSW however has a wider array of involvement in the field due to their generalized knowledge base. Regardless of which licensure you pursue, involvement in the field of mental health is nonetheless rewarding and guaranteed to be fulfilling. 


American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists

Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards

Association of Social Work Board

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education

Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs

Council on Social Work Education


Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council