In February 2020, Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods launched a pro bono medical-legal partnership (MLP) with VCU Health to help meet the critical legal needs of low-income patients in the Richmond area by providing legal representation for matters that impact their health and well-being.
The MLP model was launched in the 1990s at Boston Medical Center to address legal issues that contribute to poor health and inequity and has expanded around the country. In Richmond, VCU Health identified a need for a system to address patients’ legal needs and established its MLP in 2018. In 2019, VCU Health approached Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods for help in expanding its program to additional patient populations. In response, Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods partnered with VCU Health to expand its services across the VCU Health footprint, more than doubling the number of patient populations served and expanding the scope of legal services to include special education and immigration services. The MLP grew to serve patients in clinics and hospitals who have issues with healthcare eligibility, immigration status, and other basic legal problems that affect their healthcare authorization and disrupt treatment. VCU Health doctors and social workers refer patients to pro bono attorneys and legal professionals at Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods for assistance in five areas of critical legal service that affect access to healthcare and quality of life: 1) educational advocacy for children in treatment at VCU Health; 2) family law, including child custody and domestic violence; 3) immigration issues related to healthcare access; 4) housing law, including environmental issues such as eviction defense, repairs, and substandard housing conditions that impair health; and 5) life-planning documents for patients in need to facilitate patient care, including adult guardianships, wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives.
Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods lawyers oversee the pro bono MLP partnership, and McGuireWoods partners and associates serve as team leaders for each of the five practice areas. In addition to its partnership with Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods, VCU Health also partners with CancerLINC, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, the University of Richmond School of Law, and the Legal Aid Justice Center to provide legal services to patients and their families. These local organizations also serve as resources for the pro bono attorneys at Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods, including by providing training. Local legal aid organizations benefit from MLP pro bono volunteers who add capacity to serve low-income individuals and families in the Richmond area.
Since its inception in 2020, over 110 Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods lawyers have volunteered for the MLP. In that time, over 75 VCU Health patients have received assistance with critical needs at the intersection of healthcare and legal representation from volunteer lawyers, and Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods are currently handling more than 50 active MLP cases for patients and their families.
The MLP has obtained life-altering results for many whose health depended on access to justice. For example, the MLP volunteers worked to gain access to an experimental cancer treatment program for an undocumented incarcerated individual. The patient had an advanced stage of cancer, and the standard treatment protocol was unlikely to increase their chances of survival. Due to their incarceration, they were ineligible for a potentially lifesaving clinical trial. In addition, the patient was undocumented and scheduled to be detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon release from incarceration. The MLP team worked with the Department of Corrections, which in turn worked with ICE, to secure an early release so that the patient could receive this life-saving treatment.
As another example, an MLP team worked to ensure an elementary school student with disabilities will receive necessary services and accommodations through his individualized education plan (IEP). The school system had denied previous requests for accommodations in the virtual learning environment during the COVID-19 pandemic and failed to readdress the requests after the student returned to in-person school. Following meetings with the student’s pro bono attorneys, the school agreed to amend the student’s IEP to include accommodations for special transportation and classroom mobility assistance. In addition, the school approved occupational, behavioral, and physical therapy services for the student.
The MLP has been able to aid these patients and many others because of significant volunteer engagement, training, and recognition. In March 2022, more than 100 volunteers from Dominion Energy and McGuireWoods came together to celebrate two years of collaboration with VCU Health on the MLP, and to receive CLE trainings to assist future pro bono clients.
The founders of the MLP at VCU Health were inspired by the original model created more than 25 years ago at Boston Medical Center. A generation later, the VCU Health MLP, which flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing virtual legal services, is an innovative and inspiring model for today’s medical-legal partnerships. In addition to the pro bono services provided by McGuireWoods, the partnership is also notable for its high level of in-house engagement: more than 61 percent of the lawyers in Dominion’s legal department, and 11 percent of legal staff, have volunteered to help with the pro bono MLP.
Congratulations to Dominion Energy, McGuireWoods, and VCU Health for building an admirable pro bono model to respond to dire needs at the convergence of healthcare and legal services.
About the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award
Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), a project of Pro Bono Institute, created the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award to recognize innovative pro bono collaborations of in-house legal departments with law firms and public interest organizations. Pro bono partnerships that include at least one in-house legal department with one or more law firms and/or public interest organizations are eligible. The CPBO Advisory Board selects the award recipients.
The award honors legal departments and the organizations with which they partner in the provision of legal services to those in need. The award recipients are departments, law firms, and public interest organizations that have demonstrated an impact in their community through their partnership project, shown substantial involvement in the project by in-house lawyers, made tangible steps toward sustaining the relationship among the partners, developed innovative substantive or structural approaches in support of the partnership’s effort, and addressed a critical legal need or assisted a particularly vulnerable community or target population.
Over the years, the impact and innovation of the projects supported by the award recipients have been tremendously important both in the projects’ ability to address the legal needs of the communities being served and in the role the partnerships have played in supporting and furthering pro bono work, especially within the in-house community. Through these partnerships, legal departments, law firms, and public interest organizations have devised programs that contribute to the legal profession’s efforts to close the justice gap and that create strong legacies of effective pro bono service.