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Private Practice Social Work Explained

January 4, 2024

Social workers help to identify and address problems at all levels of society, from the micro (individuals and families) to the macro (school districts, cities, states). Given the breadth of the role, social workers can practice in many different settings. While some gravitate toward work in government agencies or in mental health clinics, others feel most effective when engaged in private practice social work.

Whether the goal is to work solo or in close collaboration with a group of partners, private practice social work can be intensely rewarding. To prepare for long-term success as a private practitioner, it’s essential to pursue robust training and develop the right portfolio of skills.

What Is Private Practice Social Work? 

The social work career path is devoted to helping individuals cope with everyday challenges and problems. Social workers may work to connect their clients with resources and social support services that help them overcome obstacles, or they may engage in advocacy for greater social change.

Potential social work specializations to choose from includes the following:

  • Clinical social work, which concentrates on diagnosing, treating and preventing mental illness, emotional disorders and behavioral issues
  • Child, family and school social work, which focuses on helping individuals overcome social or relational difficulties
  • Social work consulting, which contributes to improving social work practice and development programs

Those who work in private practice social work work independently or in group practice, as opposed to being employed by a government agency, a hospital or a mental health clinic. 

What Are the Duties of Private Practice Social Work? 

The majority of private practice social workers specialize in clinical practice. Many licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) go into private practice because it allows them to offer mental health services, such as therapy, crisis intervention and counseling. This autonomy is one of the big draws of private practice. 

However, the duties and responsibilities of an independent social worker can vary from position to position. With that said, a few tasks are typical of most social work roles, including private practice. These duties include the following:

  • Assessing, diagnosing and treating clients with clinical mental health needs
  • Facilitating mental health and clinical interventions as needed
  • Gathering personal and medical histories to better determine the types of resources or social support services needed
  • Supporting clients through specific hardships, including loss of employment
  • Referring clients to other resources or service providers in the community
  • Advocating for client needs at the municipal or state level, and promoting social change
  • Counseling lawmakers on the best ways to address common social problems

Preparing for Private Practice Solo Work 

When considering how to become a social worker, numerous steps are required to cultivate the right skills. Completing these steps can lay the foundation for long-term impact and success. It can also help in preparation for more prestigious roles and higher salary ranges.

Earning an Undergraduate Degree

Before practicing social work, it is imperative to become familiar with the ethics of social work and gain in-depth knowledge of the different social support services that may be needed. This can all be accomplished through a four-year degree in social work.

Gaining Hands-On Experience

In addition to classroom learning, gaining experience interacting directly with clients is also important. Clinical internships are often available to provide this type of experience, along with entry-level roles under the supervision of licensed social workers.

Gain Advanced Education

Working in private practice requires licensure as an LCSW. Before sitting for licensure exams, pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) or a Doctor of Social Work (D.S.W.), is mandatory.

Seek Licensure

The LCSW is a clinical licensure that enables social workers to work directly with patients. Earning an LCSW credential requires social workers to complete an advanced degree, undergo a set number of hours of supervised counseling experience and pass a licensing exam. The exact number of hours required can vary by jurisdiction.

Hone the Right Skills

To succeed as an independent social worker, developing a full set of skills is necessary. Essential social work skills include the following:

  • Active listening
  • Communication
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking 
  • Cultural competence

These skills should be the focus of any social work degree program. Post-graduation, LCSWs should also hone their clinical competencies and ensure that they practice empathy and active listening when engaging with patients.

Prepare for Private Practice

Social work provides the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals and to enact change within families, school districts, cities and states. One way to work with a high level of independence is to pursue private practice, which can mean flying solo or aligning with a group practice.

To prepare for success in private practice solo work, consider a degree program such as the M.S.W. Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. This program will furnish the skills needed to become an LCSW following graduation and support individuals with various clinical mental health issues. The curriculum is culturally competent, prioritizes diversity and focuses on the skills needed to impact clients at the individual and communal levels. Students can learn entirely at their own pace and according to their own schedule. Find out more about VCU’s M.S.W. online format today.

Reviewed by Amy Kemter, D.S.W., LCSW.*

*Amy Kemter, D.S.W., LCSW, is a clinical social worker and professor of social work. She has a practice in San Antonio, Texas, specializing in the treatment of trauma and addiction disorders.