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Medical-Legal Partnerships Pro Bono Project

About the Project


To improve the health and well-being of vulnerable populations in partnership with the medical community through the work of volunteer attorneys.


In 1993 Dr. Barry Zuckerman, Chief of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, was moved by the plight of his patients to form a project now called the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children. Dr. Zuckerman had come to understand that lawyers could do more than a pediatrician to address the social factors affecting child health and stability . He appreciated that lawyers could help to ensure access to food stamps, fight illegal evictions, and protect families from abuse for children suffering from malnutrition, homelessness and exposure to violence.

As the program’s success attracted national attention, programs like it began sprouting up all across the country. In Boston and elsewhere there have been significant innovations, creativity and strengthening of relationships between legal services and pro bono programs, hospitals, law firms, health centers, and foundations.

The ABA developed a national support center to further extend the reach of this exciting legal services delivery model. In particular, the need for significant engagement by the private bar in supporting the medical-legal partnership model is seen as critical to the growth of these projects across the country.

In developing this initiative special consideration was given to considering medical-legal partnerships in as broad a sense as possible both in terms of targeted populations (e.g. children, people with AIDS, people with cancer and many others) and the medical partner (hospitals, community health centers, nursing homes and more). 

What Are Medical-Legal Partnerships?

Medical providers and lawyers are the ideal team to help low-income families who face legal problems related to their basic needs such as housing and income. Medical-legal partners address (MLP) the social determinants of health that create hardships for vulnerable populations through the integration of free legal services in the healthcare setting. MLPs currently serve patients at nearly 200 hospitals and health centers across the country providing direct legal services to patients; training and education to healthcare providers; and a platform for systemic advocacy.

MLPs draw on the expertise of community partners to create a holistic approach to patients care. Partners from the health and legal communities include civil legal aid agencies, law schools, pro bono law firms , hospitals, health centers, medical schools, and residency programs. MLPs train healthcare staff to screen and triage potential legal issues that have a negative impact on health, such as substandard housing conditions that lead to chronic asthma, and intervene before a legal emergency arises. After a potential legal problem has been identified, the healthcare provider refers the patient to the MLP lawyer at the hospital or health clinic just as a patient would be referred to a cardiologist for a heart problem. The lawyer can be either a MLP staff attorney or a pro bono attorney. Depending on the MLP and the patient’s legal needs, services can range from advice and brief service at a monthly legal clinic to full representation on one or more legal issues including housing, access to utilities, immigration, education, public benefits, education, guardianship, wills and family law.

ABA Medical-Legal Partnerships Pro Bono Support Project

In 2007, ABA passed a resolution in support of medical-legal partnership. The resolution encourages members of the legal profession to work with the healthcare community and social service organizations to identify and resolve legal issues that have a detrimental effect on health and well-being. After the adoption of the resolution, the ABA created the ABA MLP Project to further its commitment to MLP. 

The primary goal of the ABA MLP Project is to increase the capacity of healthcare institutions to address health-harming legal issues by increasing the availability of volunteer attorneys. Additionally, the ABA MLP Project works with national medical and legal organizations to promote the MLP model through policy and initiatives. Working in tandem with the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, resulted in the adoption of policy in support of the MLP model by the American Medical Association (AMA).

The ABA MLP Project was a joint project of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the Health Law Section, the AIDS Coordinating Committee and the ABA Center on Children and the Law, funded by ABA Enterprise Fund resources to coordinate an ABA-based national MLP pro bono support initiative.

Read the letter from ABA Past President H. Thomas Wells Jr. introducing the Medical-Legal Partnerships Pro Bono Support Project.

Medical Legal Partnership Award

Volunteer attorneys, law firms and corporate law departments have enhanced the lives of individuals and families by developing, supporting and participating in medical-legal partnerships (MLP), an innovative legal services delivery model that improves the lives of patients and builds healthier communities.

To recognize the critical role pro bono partners play in expanding the value of MLPs across the country, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service established the Outstanding Medical-Legal Partnership Pro Bono Advocacy Award.  The award is presented at the  Medical-Legal Partnership Summit. 

Qualified recipients include individual volunteer lawyers, law firms and corporate law departments working with an existing MLP site or a MLP site that is in development.  Bar associations, legal aid pro bono projects, law schools, and other institutions in the legal profession whose members have collectively made an outstanding contribution toward one or more of the criteria are also eligible. 

Qualified recipients must meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of free legal services to persons of limited means or low income communities in partnership with a hospital/health center MLP site.
  • Contributed substantial work toward developing innovative approaches to improve the health and well-being of low-income individual and/or communities working in collaboration with a MLP site.
  • Participated or coordinated MLP activities that resulted in satisfying previously unmet needs or in extending services to patients of hospitals and health centers.
  • Successfully litigated MLP pro bono cases that favorably affected the provision of other services to improve the health and well-being of persons of limited means or low income communities.
  • Developed local, statewide, regional or national technical assistance projects to aid in the development and expansion of MLP sites and the national MLP community.
  • Provided coordination or support for a successful MLP systemic advocacy project.
  • Contributed substantial work towards a MLP pro bono project that resulted in legal or health institution practice transformation.
  • Advanced the mission of the national medical-legal partnership community.

2019 Outstanding Medical-Legal Partnership Pro Bono Advocacy Award Recipient

Bowditch & Dewey, a law firm based in Worcester, Mass., is the 2019 recipient of the ABA Outstanding Medical-Legal Partnership Pro Bono Advocacy Award.

In letters of recommendation, area representatives praised the firm for its steadfast and years-long pro bono commitment to meeting the health-harming legal needs of low-income families in central Massachusetts, including through the Community Legal Aid Medical-Legal Partnership with UMass Memorial Medical Center.

“Bowditch attorneys are undaunted by complex cases and represent families in resource-intensive legal work.” one recommender wrote. “They engage in proactive and creative problem-solving … to address unmet needs, recently hosting a (medical legal partnership) training on special education and participating in a ‘Back-To-School’ check-up to learn if former clients needed additional legal assistance.”

L-R: David Bienvenu, ABA; AiVi Nguyen, Bowditch & Dewey; Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies, Community Legal Aid; Kate Gannon, Community Legal Aid

L-R: David Bienvenu, ABA; AiVi Nguyen, Bowditch & Dewey; Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies, Community Legal Aid; Kate Gannon, Community Legal Aid

Directory of Programs

View the Medical-Legal Partnerships Directory of Programs.

Where Else Can I Volunteer?

Find volunteer opportunities in the National Pro Bono Volunteer Opportunity Guide.


If you have questions, please email Center for Pro Bono staff.