Samantha J. Morton is Executive Director of Medical Legal Partnership | Boston (MLP | Boston), the founding site of the national MLP network. She previously served as Deputy Director and Staff Attorney at Medical-Legal Partnership for Children, the precursor organization to MLP | Boston that housed both national and local programs and focused on pediatric populations. Samantha is a national expert on how legal strategies can be deployed to address social determinants of health, and how the healthcare community and legal community can better align to leverage these strategies in service of patients’ health and well-being. At the BBA, she is a Co-Chair of the Delivery of Legal Services Section and a member of the Health Law Section; she was also a member of the second ever Public Interest Leadership Program Class.
1. What experiences in your early career most encouraged you to seek further leadership opportunities? For example, how did PILP help to shape your approach towards seeking leadership?
I was very lucky to be a member of the second PILP class in 2004-05. Our class didn’t have a signature project — PILP as a program was still very early in development — but we did work to launch a non-profit governance training that the BBA went on to institutionalize.
The PILP experience reinforced for me that effective leadership can take many different forms and scales — from steering an initiative from A to Z, to modeling public interest values through dedicating scarce time and effort to pro bono/public service, to posing questions or ideas that are “outside the box” during meetings, or going out of one’s way to spotlight a quieter but important voice in a deliberative setting. The PILP seminars with legal community leaders from a range of sectors were also really inspiring and helped me feel more comfortable with networking. I realized that even an exceptionally busy leader conducting high-stakes work may be enthusiastic to provide mentoring in many helpful ways. But it’s on the young lawyer to seek out those opportunities! Ultimately, I learned that leadership isn’t about a job title or committee chairmanship or even assumption of a major responsibility — a range of leadership opportunities are available to us every day, in almost every setting, and we just have to seize them.
2. Part of leadership is creative thinking. What is your process of innovation and planning unique programs within the DLS section?
I’m thrilled to be in my second year of co-chairing the Delivery of Legal Services Section, first with Roz Nasdor of Ropes & Gray and now with Tammie Garner of Nutter McClennen & Fish. The Steering Committee’s passion for advancing access to justice has made program planning pretty easy — they are full of great ideas and will dedicate some of their leadership energy to getting individual programs off the ground.
I think that inviting all ideas is essential — but in order to harness that energy, a group needs a structure. We’ve worked hard to create more structure within DLS so that this talented team’s ideas can successfully convert into action, and they definitely have. This year, we’ve introduced some new Committees focused on Public Policy – many high-stakes topics have been under consideration, such as juvenile life without parole sentences – and Human Trafficking, building on a successful event hosted by PILP last June on this sobering human rights issue. Thanks to these strategies, membership in the Section and Steering Committee continues to grow and diversify. Our Membership reflects that every corner of the legal profession has a critical stake in ensuring access to justice for all.
3. As the Executive Director of MLP Boston, how do you help to create the bridge between the medical and the legal entities? What kind of collaborative work is necessary?
A significant volume of legal problems confronting low-income people — like a landlord’s failure to remedy poor housing conditions despite a legal obligation to do so — have negative health consequences. If the legal community wants to partner with the healthcare community to tackle these social determinants of health through legal remedies, we must get to know our healthcare collaborators and the perspectives they bring to these issues well. As lawyers we are trained to put ourselves in the shoes of our clients, and we often are very good at that. It can be less intuitive to “think like a doctor” or like a hospital administrator when attempting to craft a medical-legal partnership strategy.
As Executive Director, I spend a lot of my time talking with and learning from healthcare- and public health-based colleagues about “social determinants of health,” and how the evolving health reform landscape will increase attention to them. I also work with many legal collaborators, both in the legal services and pro bono contexts, to help ensure that communication between the access to justice community and the healthcare community is as successful as possible. We come from different professional cultures, bring different (though often aligned) professional values, and use quite different language. This part of my job is especially rewarding. One way I keep a foot in both worlds at the BBA is to sit on the Health Law Section Steering Committee in addition to the DLS role.
While we must invest in substantial partnership-building time and effort for an MLP project to succeed, the rewards for the shared patient-client population are substantial. In the bigger picture, these successful partnerships and projects help to establish that access to justice not only advances a value central to the legal profession — justice — but also other values central to our society, such as health and well-being.