Boston – the cradle of MLP

Ellen Lawton (former Executive Director of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership)

I just about nuked the dictation app on my phone today, so long and rich were my interviews with Medical-Legal Partnership exponents Ellen Lawton, Dr Megan Sandel, Samantha Morton and JoHanna Flacks.

Speaking with Ellen Lawton (former executive director of the National Center for MLP) and Dr Megan Sandel (the current interim ED) was like drinking deeply from the village well – their insights went beyond the transactional aspects of establishing and delivering MLPs, and, traversed terrain including ethics, medical-legal cultures, leadership, evaluation and metrics, financial sustainability and public health policy.

Several points are worth emphasising here (you’ll have to wait for the final report for the rest!).

  • The relocation of the National Center for MLP to The George Washington University, Hirsh Health and Law Policy Program within the School of Public Health’s Department of Health Policy. The Hirsh Program “…fosters an interdisciplinary approach to the study of health law, health policy, health care, and public health.”1 This strategic shift will locate MLP into the center of public health debate and policy formation and give fuller expression to the vision of the Center as a national resource.
  • The critical importance of  securing financial investment from both health and legal partners in MLPs so as to achieve sustainability. It is not adequate for one party within a partnership to be making (or facilitating) the entire or major financial investment. Both parties must have ‘skin in the game’ if the venture is to survive.
  • The rise of Corporate Pro Bono as a major contributor to MLP. While pro bono work by private law firms has a long and distinguished history with MLP, the contribution by corporate pro bono is burgeoning, as exemplified by the recent commitment by retail giant Walmart to MLP. Corporate pro bono promises a new dimension of impact and reach for MLP, facilitating more extensive and deeper networks between social services and the commercial world.

Meeting with Medical-Legal Partnership | Boston staff Samantha Morton (Executive Director) and JoHanna Flecks (Pro Bono Director) was a wonderful opportunity to speak with experienced practitioners from the nation’s oldest and best known MLP.

It’s important to understand that MLP | Boston is not the same as the National Center, though their DNA is pretty similar!

In 2009, the Boston Medical Center recognised “…the dramatic and fast-paced evolution of the MLP landscape, the far reach of MLPs into vulnerable adult populations, and a need to better distinguish between the missions and activities of the local program, the national program, and the national network. Consequently, [the Boston Medical Center’s MLP for Children] was bifurcated into 2 newly named programs: The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership (NCMLP) and MLP | Boston … within the Department of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and affiliated with the Boston University School of Medicine.”2

One really great initiative from MLP | Boston has been the adoption of MLP clinics (or indeed entire health centres or disadvantaged populations) by pro bono programs within private law firms. This adopt a clinic concept has proven to be an efficient and effective way to engage pro bono (proving better than a case-by-case referral process, and enabling law firms to be drawn more deeply into MLP theory and practice). MLP | Boston stands as one of the greatest exemplars of MLP. Its experience and resources should be referenced by organisations with a serious interest in establishing and sustaining a MLP.


Peter Noble

1. The George Washington University, School of Public Health and Health Services,, accessed 4 April 2012.

2.Medical-Legal Partnership | Boston, Mission and History,, accessed 4 April 2012.

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