Attorneys help low-income clients in Pro Bono Prescription program

Issue January 2012 By Ashley M. Tarchara

Six months since its official launch, the Massachusetts Bar Association's Pro Bono Prescription program has attracted dozens of volunteers and begun the next phase of its mission: assigning cases to participating attorneys.

The program, a collaboration between the MBA and the Massachusetts Medical-Legal Partnership network, helps low-income residents across the state get help for their legal needs, many of which are impacting their health. A doctor in the emergency room can treat a child's respiratory troubles, for example, but a lawyer is instrumental in ensuring that the landlord removes the mold that triggered the illness.

One of the volunteer attorneys, Jon Adler (pictured, left), was assigned a case involving a single mother of three who was forced to leave the family's Dorchester apartment on multiple occasions due to bed bugs. Adler is working with the building's management and suggesting the use of more aggressive pest control to cure an ongoing problem.

"I am trying to make sure she lives in an environment that is safe for both her and her family," said Adler, who hopes to settle the case soon. He sent a demand letter to the landlord and property manager asking that they not only treat his client's unit, but the entire complex in order to remove the infestation. Adler is also seeking rent abatement to cover his client's moves, and for hospital bills incurred after the client's son was bitten by a bed bug.

"I am hoping to find that the infestation is fully resolved," said Adler, who operates his own personal injury practice, the Law Office of Jon Adler, in South Boston.

MLP Boston Executive Director Samantha Morton is delighted that the MBA is partnering with medical-legal partnerships. Currently, there are more than two dozen volunteers signed up for the program, which expects to accept volunteers on an ongoing basis.

"I knew the project would be in good hands with the MBA," Morton said. "By embracing this initiative, the MBA is pushing the envelope yet again in showing that a lawyer can advance many interests society has."

Morton said it is important for attorneys to understand that their legal work goes beyond promoting justice. "Legal advocacy is promoting health and well-being." she said.

Medical-legal partnerships, often housed with a local or regional legal services organization, work with hospitals, clinics or other institutions to provide free legal services to needy patients. Members of health care teams refer patients with legal crises and/or health emergencies that have a legal component directly tied to the MLPs.

The MBA Pro Bono Prescription aims to supplement, through volunteers, the work of MLP staff attorneys. The program will allow MLPs to help a larger number of vulnerable patients across Massachusetts at a time when legal aid organizations are seeing the number of struggling residents growing in every community.

Attorneys interested in joining the program should contact the MLP in their region. Contact information for the MLPs participating in the program, as well as details on any upcoming programming or open houses, is available at Interested lawyers will be matched with cases based on the MLPs' needs and the individual's expertise and availability.

"There is an outpouring of volunteers," said MBA Vice President Jeffrey N. Catalano, who said that attorneys had signed up at each of the program's three open houses in Worcester, Boston and Springfield. They have also expressed interest by contacting the MLPs through the MBA website or by speaking with MBA officers.

The idea for the program came when Catalano, a partner at Todd & Weld LLP in Boston who specializes in medical malpractice, was asked by Morton to speak at a medical-legal conference in Worcester last year.

"I was inspired by how successful they are and the energy behind the people involved," said Catalano, who thought it would be a great idea to get the MBA involved.

Another volunteer attorney, Judith Rothbard Tate, joined the program in September after becoming intrigued by the idea of a medical-legal partnership.

"I thought it was an exciting way to meet both health care needs and legal needs simultaneously," said Tate, who focuses on real estate law in her home office in Berlin, but also has a background in criminal, family and personal injury law.

She is currently working on establishing her client as the guardian for an adult in Worcester with an intellectual disability by filing the appropriate petitions with the court. The case had already been referred to and passed on by a number of attorneys because of the expertise required.

Among the documents required to file the guardianship are a clinical team report that must be completed by the incapacitated person's primary care physician, a psychologist and a social worker. "One of the benefits of the medical-legal partnership is the link between the attorney and treating physicians," Tate said.

She was so compelled to focus on pro bono work that she began working at a community legal aid office in Worcester last fall. She said lending legal expertise and advice is important, especially when it comes to medical-legal problems.

The next phase of the Pro Bono Prescription program will include additional open houses and recruitment efforts, as well as training programs for existing volunteers.