Why is Privilege Important to Know for the LCSW & MFT Exam?

By Bethany Vanderbilt on October 17, 2012

A gavel

If you're preparing for the LCSW or LMSW social work exams or the MFT exam, what exactly do you need to know about privilege? Like most of our topics, this one is bound to come up, not only on the social work exam, but in real life -- and it's important to understand what privilege is in the legal context, who holds it, and when it's waived.

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Let's look at one way this might come up on your exam:


A client and therapist work together for 6 months, at which time the client leaves treatment with no explanation. Several weeks later, the therapist receives a subpoena from a local law firm stating that the client will be the defendant in an upcoming trial and requesting information. What should the therapist do NEXT?

A. Provide the information since the client-therapist relationship has ended

B. Waive privilege and comply with the request

C. Assert privilege and attempt to contact the client

D. Contact the law firm and inform them that you have not had contact with the client in several weeks

So, what is privilege in the context of the LCSW or MFT exams? Well, in the legal context it's shorthand for "privileged information," which the Social Work Dictionary defines as "the premise and understanding between a professional and client that the information revealed by the client will not be divulged to others without expressed permission." It's interesting to note that states are not consistent about the way in which this concept is interpreted, but in many cases, communication is considered privileged unless there is a "risk of public danger or a threat to the public good," (Barker, 2003). In most cases, when a therapists receives a subpoena, the first step is to assert privilege, which in practice means the therapist refuses to provide any information, including knowledge of the client. On the licensed clinical social worker exam, the most notable exception to this is when the request comes in the form of a court order, or a subpoena from a judge. In that case, the therapist is compelled to comply with the request or face a possible contempt charge.


The best answer to the question above is C: assert privilege and attempt to contact the client. The fact that the client has apparently dropped out of treatment has no bearing on whether or not the therapist should divulge information; we learned in our post on confidentiality (which can be read here) that it extends to situations in which we are no longer in contact with clients, including death.  A is not the best answer because the fact that the client and therapist are no longer in contact has no bearing on the therapist's response. Likewise, B and D both violate the client's right to confidentiality in the absence of a threat to the public good or some sort of public danger.

Coming up next week: Group Treatment

Think our straightforward, sensible approach could help you PASS your social work or MFT exam? If you're preparing for a social work exam, check out our Social Work Study Materials. If you're preparing for an MFT exam, check out our MFT Study Materials. Learn more about our offerings at The Therapist Development Center.

Looking for more practice questions and some study tips? Check out our new Social Work Exam Study Guide:

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