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Medical-Legal Partnerships

We just finished hosting a symposium on what may seem, to some, the unlikeliest collaboration of all: doctors and lawyers. Indeed, any doctor whose child informs her that she’s thinking of going to law school is likely to respond with the rending of garments, and a prospective disownment of said offspring — to take effect once the bar exam has been passed.

But that’s only because most think of doctors and lawyers as poised eternally on opposite sides of a medical malpractice suit. Law schools, though, have lately changed their orientation away from teaching students about litigation as the sole tool of problem-solving. Instead, we’re placing emphasis on law as problem-solving, with litigation the nuclear option to be deployed when diplomacy, negotiation and other less drastic measures have been exhausted. This sea change has opened us up to collaborative efforts, among them the medical-legal partnership.

In the mid-1900’s, Boston physician Barry Zuckerman had the insight that many of the patients he was seeing repeatedly had unmet legal needs. Unless those were addressed, the medical problems wouldn’t go away. For example, a child who keeps showing up at the emergency room with an acute asthma attack may be living in substandard housing. If those housing conditions are addressed — a legal issue — the asthma problem will disappear or at least be made less serious.

From this seed, more than 80 medical-legal partnerships have now germinated. Some are housed within hospitals themselves; others work through law school clinics; still others are free-standing, or connected to a legal aid organization. What they share is an understanding that the legal and medical professions have the common goal of helping achieve a healthy population, where both legal and medical needs are met so that patients (and now clients) can begin to achieve potential that had been blocked.

Perhaps these collaborations can form the foundation of better relations between these two often-warring professions.

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