BA American University JD Loyola Law School LL.M International Law American University MA Addiction Counseling, Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies
Leading authority on lawyer mental health and wellbeing
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ex judicata: We are talking today with Patrick Krill, founder of Krill Strategies. For those of you who may not be familiar with Patrick’s work, his name is pretty much synonymous with promoting lawyer mental health, understanding substance abuse in the profession and assisting legal employers in providing treatment. You are a JD as well as a licensed board-certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that when a law firm has a mental health or substance abuse issue you are the first call.
So, Patrick, you get out of law school, and you get an LLM in international studies. Was your plan at that point to go into international law in some way, shape or form?
Patrick Krill: Well, first, let me say thank you, Neil and Kim, for the invitation to be here and to speak with you and for the very kind introduction. I would say when I got out of law school my career plan was a little amorphous. I did know from taking some international trade law and international law courses during the course of my JD, that it was an area of law that I was absolutely fascinated by, and I just found it intellectually stimulating.
I’m someone who had done a lot of travel prior and studied abroad. I always had an interest in things international, as it were. And when I really started digging into
international law, I just found it very interesting. Looking back on it now, with the benefit of hindsight and a couple of decades between now and that period in my life, I can say I was probably deferring entering the job market because I was not ready to complete my studies. There was all this information that I wanted to continue studying in an academic context and setting.
ex judicata: I do see that you eventually did practice for, it looks like, about seven years. What type of firm, what type of practice?
Patrick Krill: I worked in a large firm and as part of a corporate team. It was primarily land use, real estate, that type of work, which was a departure from the LLM in international law. I think probably a bit of a lesson there that we can sometimes find ourselves working in environments that didn’t necessarily align with where we thought we were going to be moving.
But neither as an attorney in a law firm nor in a corporate setting, was I someone who had found what they were looking for. So, as I just mentioned, in the decision to get an LLM, there was an element of delaying entering the job market. It’s quite possible that I sensed early on the practice of law was not going to be the way I wanted to make a living.
When I was doing the whole summer associate thing, getting my feet wet a little bit, I was starting to see that maybe law wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. And once I began practicing law, those feelings became more pronounced. Not to ramble, but I want to be clear that it wasn’t anything necessarily about the practice of law that I could point to and say that was horrible. It was more this feeling that the work structure and work environment were not doing it for me as it were.
ex judicata: It sounds like it wasn’t so much the law part of it but the setting. The law environment, the structure and the pressures that go with that. Is this how you want to spend your time? And many of us conclude that the law life is not a great fit with our personality and/or what we want to do with our life. So how do you make the turn how did you leave law and redirect towards working on addiction and substance abuse issues?.
Patrick Krill: I had experienced it personally and I don’t mind disclosing that. I don’t think it really merits a lot of discussion. But I will say because it’s certainly relevant to my own journey. I made the decision around the seven-year mark that I’d like to do something different. I would like to pursue an alternative career path, and maybe that’s going to involve going back to school and gaining additional licensure.
I was reminded of my own experience in my prior life of overcoming alcohol addiction. I was exposed to mental health professionals, treatment providers and addiction counselors working in the space. I was not only helped by them, I was impressed by what they were doing as a career.
This opportunity to go in and help people redirect and restructure their lives in order to pursue ultimately greater health and just to have a chance at the life they had always wanted. So, I was kind of thinking alright, I don’t want to be a lawyer. I’ve given it enough time to come to that conclusion and I feel okay about that decision. What would I like to do? Where do my passions really lie? And that’s where it was pretty clear to me I want to move into mental health, I want to transition into the behavioral health field and make that my next professional chapter.
At that point, however, I had significant work experience. I didn’t want to just jettison all of that. So, it made sense for me to look for a way to marry the two critical experiences I had had in my life. So, transitioning into mental health, but with a very specific focus on the legal profession as a population that I wanted to work with and ultimately help.
ex judicata: That is a theme that has come up in just about every one of the now 40 interviews we have had with JDs who pivoted to find success and happiness in new careers. Each person built their career off a foundation of legal training and in most cases legal experience as well. So far from a waste of time, it was critical to their success.
Patrick, you wound up getting your training at the Betty Ford Clinic. Is that where you first helped in overcoming your addiction?
Patrick Krill: Yes, I did have a connection with the Betty Ford Center. So I was familiar with the organization. When I decided to get my master’s degree in addiction counseling, they were the logical choice. They have a graduate program in addiction training. And I knew it was really one of the best organizations out there in the country to pursue that type of education and licensure.
ex judicata: Was anyone at that point, Patrick, focused on addiction in the legal services marketplace? It seems like you’re the person that really put the two together for the first time. Now, of course, there were problems forever, but in terms of actually approaching it as a profession in need of understanding addiction, counseling solutions and the like.
Patrick Krill: I do think my research and my advocacy has played a significant role in bringing the problem to light and generating the type of discussion that we’re having around it right now. But I certainly can’t take credit for being the first one to realize or recognize that lawyers were predisposed to addiction problems and mental health problems.
There are what’s known as lawyer assistance programs that are scattered throughout the country. Every jurisdiction has one, and those have been around in some form since the 80s the 90s or early 2000s, depending on the jurisdiction.
Those are typically staffed by people who are there to provide assistance to the legal profession in the realm of mental health and wellbeing. I had a mentor at Hazelden Betty Ford, who unfortunately has since passed, who was a former trial lawyer who made that pivot to addiction counseling. I had the opportunity to work with him and access to a platform to help amplify and change the discussion around law and substance abuse.
ex judicata: Let’s talk on practical terms. From a monetary standpoint you go from practicing law and I assume making a very good income to something lower-paying certainly to start. This is a very common scenario. Did you have to budget for changing your career?
Patrick Krill: Sure. Well, I can’t say that I necessarily budgeted for it. I was able to make the transition without too much disruption to my life. I guess I should say, however, that it was not a primary objective of mine at that point to kind of safeguard income level. I was willing and certainly on board with taking a pay cut.
Now, I’ll also say that there are plenty of opportunities to make a very nice living doing work that’s outside of the practice of law. There may be a transitory period where you’re going to find yourself earning less. But I would advise people, unless you have a lot of obligations that really do mandate a very specific income level, don’t be too focused on income. Because you don’t even know what it’s going to look like two years down the road, three years down the road. You might have the opportunity to match or even surpass your prior income level.
ex judicata: And, of course, you can’t put a price on the happiness in going off to do something you are actually excited by.
Patrick Krill: Yes, there’s a lot more to life than money.
ex judicata: Absolutely. So how then do you go about launching your new career? Do you remember your first assignment?
Patrick Krill: My consulting firm has been in business for seven years and we’ve been quite busy from day one. But prior to that, I was the director of a treatment program for lawyers, judges and law students at Hazelden Betty Ford. In that role, it was common for me to have discussions with law firms who were sending their lawyers to treatment. Sometimes I’d be on the phone with a household name firm and other times a small firm. It was my role to interface with these firms that were often sponsoring the treatment. And I was frequently being asked to do things for the firm that were really outside the scope of my availability. I was helping an attorney of a firm get well and then the firm might ask if I could come to the office and give a presentation. Or help them draft a policy. I didn’t’ have the bandwidth to do all that.
But what it did reveal to me in unmistakable terms was that there was a significant need out there among legal employers for these types of services, for this type of assistance.. And so, I left Hazelden Betty Ford, right after my large study with the ABA had been published.
I do remember my first actual client. I obviously can’t disclose the firm, but it was a pretty significant call. They were calling me about someone in senior leadership at the firm who was struggling with an alcohol use problem. And this is two weeks after flipping on the lights, metaphorically, for my consulting firm, I was in there helping them. I’m happy to report it had a happy ending. That partner overcame their problem.
ex judicata: I’m just kind of fascinated by the whole process of going into a law firm and starting to help one person overcome an individual problem but also consulting with those interacting with the person and then in addition helping to lay a trail for proactive wellness at that same firm.
Patrick Krill: Absolutely right. There are many dynamics at play within the firm. The other people that work with, or report to, or support the person with a problem may need some coaching. They may need some guidance. The firm may need to understand how to reintegrate this person following treatment. And, that’s to be expected. Most lawyers did not go to school to understand these issues. It’s not something that they would have a lot of experience with or insight into. And that’s why it’s important to utilize professionals who can guide you.
ex judicata: What part of your time, Patrick, is spent on, say, proactive counseling versus, ‘oh my God, we got a big problem here’. Is it like a 50-50 mix?
Patrick Krill: Well, it’s shifted. I would say it’s probably more like 70-30, where we’re doing quite a bit of education both through live presentations, workshops, and on demand courses. I view that as a very positive development because there is now this appetite within the legal profession to talk about mental health and substance abuse, to educate people, to help them understand how to avoid problems or seek help when needed.
But easily 30% of my time is still helping firms deal with specific problems giving them guidance and advice. The calls now tend to come earlier in the process because we do have this heightened awareness and we’re talking about the problems more so now. It’s not necessarily this person’s in crisis like severe crisis. What do we do? The calls tend to be more of the flavor of we’re starting to be concerned about this person and we think this is maybe moving in a problematic direction. How do we approach this?
ex judicata: If you could speak a little bit about shifting perceptions and how it has become more acceptable for firms to say we have someone that has a problem.
Patrick Krill: Yeah, well, for the for the longest time and for anyone listening to this who’s coming from the legal profession, which is presumably just about everyone who will be listening to this or reading this, we haven’t wanted to talk about these issues or to acknowledge them because we were taught to believe that acknowledging a mental health or substance use problem is kind of antithetical to being the high functioning, reliable, professional with good judgment and excellent cognitive skills that we all want and think our clients deserve.
But what’s happened over the last 6 or 7 years is that more of these stories have been reported on, more initiatives have been undertaken within the legal profession, and more people have kind of come into this space to help change the culture. It’s just not a secret anymore. And the stigma is beginning to erode, which then shifts the conversation more to, okay, these problems exist. How do we address them sooner rather than kind of begrudgingly acknowledging that they even exist in the first place?
ex judicata: Yes, it’s been difficult to acknowledge for the reason that you just said lawyers having to be seen as hard charging problem-solvers not problems themselves. But it’s also that this is the least self-reflective profession. Very few lawyers take a step back and actually think about their feelings, their problems and their life. We’re hoping at ex judicata that we can help more lawyers to take that step back and reflect.
Patrick Krill: Yes, and I think that is a worthy goal. And you’re right. We don’t tend to be a very introspective group. We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about other people’s problems, how we can assist, how we can solve those problems. And one of the things that I often do is to challenge their problematic thought processes by having them externalize it. To think of it as a client’s problem or someone else’s problem. How would you approach it? How would you tackle that situation?
To take a more objective view allowing for better solutions and a more realistic understanding of what is happening. It’s a bit of a workaround.
ex judicata: That makes a lot of sense. From what I can see stress levels in the profession are almost at their highest point. Perhaps not as bad as during the pandemic. What are some of the things you emphasize when talking to firms about how to be more proactive?
Patrick Krill: Well, first things first. I think it’s important to create a common vocabulary, help people understand what are we even talking about when we say ‘mental health’ or when we say ‘wellbeing’? And then getting into core concepts and high-level warning signs that someone is having a problem. And then, generally, I do try to pivot to a discussion around, okay, what can you do about that? What can you do to either approach a colleague who’s struggling and/or what can you do to mitigate your own risk level?
What are some proactive lifestyle changes that attorneys can make to reduce their risk for a drinking problem or for struggling with a mental health problem? One of the things that you’re confronted with in the context of a law firm or the legal profession, however, is that many of the things you might recommend to people that they do like taking more control over their schedule or finding time for more self-care, can sometimes feel impossible in the context of a very demanding legal practice.
Which is, incidentally, why many people choose to transition to an alternative career to reclaim some autonomy.
And for those attorneys with that crushing schedule I at least can help them understand what they could and should be doing if they had the time. The hope is that if some time does free up here or there they can try some of the things we talk about.
ex judicata: There are so many types of professionals that can help– psychiatrists, psychologists, coaches, wellness counselors etc. If someone has a problem and wants to talk to someone how can they best go about choosing the right person or kind of person to work with? Is it seeking recommendations? Asking for referrals?
Patrick Krill: Yeah, I would say not Google. I wouldn’t turn to a search engine for your mental health support. You’re going to see a lot of sponsored ads and you might spend a lot of time trying to sift through what is actually credible and what’s actually useful.
I would say if your employer makes benefits available in the form of an employee assistance program, counseling, therapy, and the like be willing to explore and see if that can help. If you are a lawyer, there’s always, as I mentioned before, those programs called lawyer assistance programs in each state, and they can provide confidential referrals. And I would also ask people that you know. Because chances
are they have worked with someone or a family member of theirs has worked with someone they can refer.
ex judicata: If you’re, say, a young associate, Patrick, and you feel that you have a problem and you need help, what’s the first reach out? Is it to talk with the partner that you report to, or is it to talk with an outside professional and keep it to yourself? I imagine this comes up all the time when someone has a problem. What do you do?
Patrick Krill: Yeah, it does come up a lot and I think it depends on the context.
There are some firms that I work with who have very clear avenues for support and protocols that people can engage, and they can call that external resource first or they at least know that there’s this pathway within the firm that they can go down to talk to people confidentially when they’re ready
I would say that the bottom line, however, is don’t suffer in silence. Don’t just continue to allow yourself to struggle because you’re not sure who to reach out to or how to make that reach out.
And you’re better off just initiating the conversation with someone that you believe you can trust and someone that you believe might have some answers and support for you. Maybe they’re not the right person. So, for example, I’m an associate in a law firm. maybe I talk to that partner that I report to, and, ultimately, they’re not going to be the person who has all the answers. But I know I can tell them this and they’re probably not going to judge me too harshly.
And, hopefully–and this is part of the work that we do with firms–that partner is now going to know, okay, here’s how I engage the resources that the firm makes available and what I do next to help the associate. But to reiterate my point, I think it’s just important to talk to someone and sometimes even that act of telling someone else ‘Hey, I’m not in a great place, I’m struggling with this or I’m feeling overwhelmed’ That in and of itself can have some informal therapeutic value that can get you to a better place, at least temporarily.
ex judicata: Is that the feeling that brings most lawyers into treatment? The source of most of the problems—feeling overwhelmed, helpless, stress unending?
Patrick Krill: I think that’s a big piece of it. Chronic stress is one of the most significant risk factors for burnout, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. All of those things that we see in the legal profession. And it’s also kind of a cumulative impact. So they just haven’t had a break in a long time. They work in an environment where they are always supposed to be available. And I don’t care who you are if you go long enough without some sort of self-care and maintenance, then you’re going to experience some challenges.
You know, it might manifest differently with different people. Maybe it’s falling victim to an addiction. Maybe it’s engaging in some problematic behavior. Maybe it’s becoming depressed. But it really does underscore the importance of just taking some breaks along the way and giving yourself some space.
ex judicata: Do you think the pandemic and the shift to working from home–which now looks like two days a week within most law firms–has helped people or has is it created more problems because they feel like they’re on now 24/7? Always?
Patrick Krill: It’s been both. I think two years ago all this external, novel stress swirling around us in the environment, what is this pandemic? And, then the internal stress as so many firms were incredibly busy and attorneys were feeling burnt out.
Now, there’s also this wrinkle emerging where we are in the grips of a loneliness epidemic. The Surgeon General just published a large report on this. You really can’t read a magazine, newspaper, browse social media without seeing articles and stories about the impact and severity of the loneliness problem we are all experiencing.
For some people working from home helps them mitigate that loneliness because maybe they’re able to see their family or kids more. But for other people it really is isolation. So, I think it’s hard to generalize and to say work from home is either good or bad for people’s mental health and well-being.
ex judicata: One last question, Patrick. One that we always like to close on. How do you think that your JD training helped set you up for success in your chosen field?
Patrick Krill: I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and that’s one thing that I would say as well to anyone listening to this or reading this. I’ve counseled lawyers and judges dealing with their mental health issues and/or overcoming an addiction. Many find themselves grappling with a lot of life and career regrets. And sometimes people are like, why did I do any of this?
But it’s so important to recognize your legal experience and training has actually changed you for the better overall. It’s given you a lot of gifts and it’s allowed you to think more analytically and to have skills at your disposal that you probably couldn’t even easily or quickly inventory. I mean, just a lot of the ways that we view the world, are able to process the world and kind of deal with it can actually be quite good and useful to us.
The JD allowed me to expand my mind, intellectual capacity and my ability to reason. These are things that I continue to draw on daily, even though I’m not practicing law and haven’t in a long time. I’m working with law firms and working with individual lawyers and with other stakeholders in the profession to solve problems and to think creatively. I just know that my ability to do those things has been meaningfully enhanced by the training I received as a lawyer
ex judicata: That’s a perfect place to leave it. Patrick. Thank you for your time here. And thank you more broadly for what you’re doing for the entire profession. It’s terrific. Wishing you continued success in all you are doing.
Patrick Krill: Thank you very much and my thanks to you and Kim. It’s really been a pleasure to chat with you.