Today’s social workers are employed in a variety of professional settings, from health care facilities and schools to government organizations and nonprofit groups. As their careers advance, some clinical social workers choose to enter private practice, allowing them to focus on issues they’re most passionate about. However, before someone can open a social work private practice, they first need to establish their credentials, obtain the right certifications and demonstrate expertise within their practice section.
One of the main qualifications is to obtain a Master’s in Social Work or another relevant degree, which is often a stepping stone for earning a clinical license. While non-clinical social workers can also become private practitioners, they usually have fewer options for their business than those with a background in mental health, psychotherapy and behavioral disorders. If you’re looking to start your own social work private practice, it’s important to understand which licenses are required, how to build a business plan and how to market your services.
What is social work private practice?
Instead of directly working for a managed care company, health care organization or some other established institution, some social workers start their own independent practice. As noted by the National Association of Social Workers, private practitioners’ services extend far beyond their offices, as they’re often contracted by schools, courts, primary care facilities and other clinical organizations. For-profit companies may also seek out clinical social workers to improve or supplement their employee assistance programs.
In most cases, however, independent social workers offer hands-on counseling and mental health support to the general public, which requires a clinical license. They work with adults, children and adolescents by providing individual and group therapy, crisis intervention, bereavement counseling and more. For those with a particular specialization, working independently offers more freedom to focus on specific mental health issues and at-risk populations. For example, clinical social workers with an interest in early childhood development may prioritize students with behavioral issues or family problems. Depending on your own professional interests and career goals, starting a private practice may allow you to make a real difference in the lives of countless people in your local community.
What are the advantages of building a private practice?
Pursuing a career as a clinical social worker in solo or group practice offers a variety of benefits for established professionals and aspiring students. For one, private practitioners tend to have more flexible work schedules compared to those in traditional settings. They can set their own appointments, take days off when needed and build a clientele base that fits into their lifestyle and practice section. Independent social workers also have more control over their work environment, giving them the freedom to meet with clients in person or through video conferencing. Alongside these benefits, the NASW also highlights three additional advantages of building a private practice:
- Freedom from organizational limitations: Social workers employed in agency settings rarely have control over their work schedules or day-to-day responsibilities. Instead, they’re assigned specific duties and are under constant clinical supervision to ensure best practices are being upheld. Private practitioners are not constrained by these organizational processes, allowing them to budget time independently and prioritize tasks that they feel are important.
- Ability to maintain clinical skills: As noted by the NASW, many clinical social workers take on administrative, research and education roles alongside their counseling work. This allows private practitioners to continuously enhance their clinical skills, explore new diagnosis and treatment techniques and remain relevant within their field. Working in a group practice also opens up opportunities for peer-to-peer workshops and greater collaboration, ensuring all clinical social workers are held accountable for the level of service they deliver.
- Opportunity to increase earning potential: Social work private practice is a great way to increase one’s earning potential, as independent professionals are able to set their own rates. Rather than being paid a pre-negotiated salary, private practitioners can build a clientele base that matches their desired work/life balance or compensation goals. Clinical social workers employed in an agency setting sometimes enter private practice on a part-time basis just to increase their personal income and open up more job opportunities, per the NASW.
While working as an independent social worker may sound like a dream job, it does come with quite a few challenges. Since private practitioners tend to work independently, filling this role can be very isolating. This is one reason the NASW recommends independent clinical social workers join a network of private practices or bring on a consultant for part-time support.
Starting a private practice: A brief how-to guide
Building a social work private practice requires determination, careful planning and a great deal of professional experience within the field. According to the NASW, clinical social workers must meet three main criteria before starting a private practice, including:
- Earning a master’s degree in social work from an accredited university
- Performing at least two years of post-graduate work in a supervised, clinical setting
- Obtaining a clinical license in the state where the private practice will be established
These requirements tend to vary between states, so it’s important to check with relevant state licensure boards to understand what’s expected. Keep in mind that while social work private practices are clinical in nature, they’re also businesses, which must run efficiently to remain open. For this reason, the NASW recommends clinical social workers enroll in a basic course or workshop to familiarize themselves with key business skills, concepts and practices. Alternatively, aspiring social workers can also hire a management company to help with the business side of their practices.
Once all the basic requirements have been met, private practitioners can start setting up their business, filling out the necessary tax documentations and seeking out clients. The NASW offers the following tips for building a private practice from the ground up:
Step 1: Establish a business plan
The first step to starting a private practice is to create a detailed business plan that outlines the goals, strategies and financial needs of the organization. This document will be essential for obtaining a business loan from a bank or government-backed lender, according to the Small Business Association. When developing a business plan, clinical social workers will need to choose between a traditional or lean startup approach.
- Traditional business plans: These more comprehensive business plans are typically packed with information, including a lengthy company description, market research, financial projections and funding requirements. Private practitioners will need to explain their services, target customers, expected financial performance and marketing strategies in extraordinary detail.
- Lean startup business plans: This more streamlined business plan format can be useful for starting a private practice quickly or when services are simple to explain. That said, clinical social workers in private practice will still need to break down their business’s value proposition, customers, finances and revenue streams to make a compelling case to lenders.
During the planning stage, it’s important to consider whether the practice will be a solo or group endeavor. While both models can be profitable, building a private practice with a team of licensed professionals offers a higher level of clinical supervision that can be valuable during the early days of a new practice. Once the business plan is fleshed out, the next step is to locate a physical office to serve as the primary hub of client and partner interactions. Some private practitioners choose to travel to clients’ homes instead of meeting in a dedicated office – though this is generally a matter of personal preference.
Step 2: Apply for a National Provider Identification Number
Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, all mental health providers seeking compensation must obtain a National Provider Identification Number, known as an NPI. This unique identifier is assigned to clinical social workers who submit paper and digital claims, or receive cash payments. Private practitioners can request either an individual or group NPI by filling out a brief application through the National Plan & Provider Enumeration System or by calling the agency directly.
Step 3: Obtain a tax identification number
Like with any new company, starting a private practice requires business leaders to obtain a tax identification number from the federal government. The NASW recommends securing a TIN for the practice itself rather than lumping it in with personal finances. To receive one, business owners must complete IRS Form SS-4 and submit it to the Internal Revenue Service.
Step 4: Purchase professional liability insurance
Building a private practice comes with some degree of financial risk, which is why professional liability insurance is required in the U.S. The minimum amount of coverage needed tends to vary based on state regulations, insurance companies and the types of social work services being offered. For example, the NASW offers a minimum $1 million per lawsuit and $1 million for the policy year through its Assurance Program. Since private practitioners work in “high-risk situations,” it’s important to maintain coverage at all times to prevent policy gaps that may lead to severe financial losses.
Step 5: Create patient forms and supervision guidelines
After a new private practice’s financials have been sorted out, clinical social workers will need to create patient documents, internal processes and resource guides to support the administrative side of their business. New clients will need to fill out intake forms, release of information requests and other documents required under HIPAA before they can start treatment. For a complete list of HIPAA data privacy guidelines and other policy requirements, visit the NASW’s website.
Another key concern has to do with clinical supervision. Even in social work private practices that are owned and operated by a single professional, it’s important to have some level of oversight to ensure a consistent quality of service. According to the American Psychological Association, effective supervision is built on strong relationships between peers, modern assessment and feedback mechanisms and a willingness to improve one’s clinical skills. Private practitioners should work closely with social work networks, other clinical professionals or hire an outside consultant to discuss problematic cases and liability concerns.
Step 6: Market the practice
When building a private practice, it’s important to establish a referral process and formal marketing strategy to attract clients that need support in a particular practice section. While some clinical social workers rely on managed care companies and health care facilities to refer patients in need of mental health counseling, it’s recommended that private practitioners look outside these sourcing channels.
As noted by the NASW, successful marketing requires clinical social workers to explain who they are, what services they provide and why they are qualified to treat certain emotional disturbances, mental illnesses and other interpersonal issues. One of the best ways to reach potential clients is to create a web page to advertise and seek referrals. Third-party websites like Psychology Today can also help private practitioners expand their reach and connect with individuals who may not have considered physiotherapy before.
Step 7: Set service fees
The final step to starting a private practice is to set fees for one’s services. The NASW notes that clinical social workers should consider the economy, their geographical location, insurance company rates and prices set by other mental health providers before finalizing their payment structure. Fees should be set at an amount that is fair and reasonable for the average citizen. In some cases, private practitioners may choose to waive the fee for new patients or adjust their pricing structure for low-income clients. While it’s important to make clinical social work services affordable, independent practitioners must also consider the needs of the business and any contractual obligations from third-party agreements.
Start your journey to social work private practice with an MSW from the University of Nevada, Reno
If you’re interested in building a private practice or working as an independent social worker, the online Master’s of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno can help prepare you for the journey. This unique MSW degree covers foundational and specialized topics in the social work field, allowing students to assemble the skills, knowledge and experience needed to become a clinical social worker. The program is structured around advanced generalist practice, allowing you to compete for a variety of clinical and non-clinical roles that align with your personal and professional interests.
Whether you have a background in social work or are looking to make a career change, the online MSW curriculum can provide the insight required to take on high-level roles in a variety of settings, from traditional agency environments to social work private practices. This versatility can help you develop essential leadership skills, empower others through communication and counselling, navigate diverse practice contexts and promote social and economic justice. Students with a bachelor’s in social work can join the advanced standing program, which can be completed in as few as 15 months. Non-BSW graduates transitioning to the social work field can enroll in the traditional program, which features foundational courses and a three-day residency at the University of Nevada School of Medicine.