Podcast Transcript: Interview with Patrick Krill about the New National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being Report and Addiction in the Legal Industry

Topics: Client Relations, Government, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Podcasts, Talent Development

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Legal Executive Institute:    Hello, and welcome to the Legal Executive Institute podcast. Today we’re speaking with Patrick Krill. Patrick is an attorney and a licensed & board-certified alcohol and drug counselor. He’s also the founder and principal of Krill Strategies. Patrick is also one of the co-authors of the new National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which published its report this past month.

Patrick, welcome.

Patrick Krill: Good afternoon, Gregg, how are you?

Legal Executive Institute:    Good. Good, good. Now there was a lot of news that came out of this report. Could you give us a little bit of a background of where this report came from, and what was the impetus behind its creation?

Patrick Krill: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, you probably recall last year, in 2016, there was a study published that was a joint effort by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. I was actually the lead author of that study, and that demonstrated that there is a significant level of problem drinking and mental health distress, specifically depression and anxiety, in the legal profession.

With the publication of that report in tandem with the publication of a study on law students, which demonstrated similar levels of elevated distress, and also limited help-seeking, a lot of discussion was really sort of initiated last year. And attorney behavioral health, if you will, became something of a hot topic for the profession.

Some colleagues and I, both within the American Bar Association and outside, came together following the publication of those two studies, and had a conversation really about what do we do next? How do we continue the momentum that has been built with this new awareness around the levels of problem drinking, depression, anxiety, etc.? And it really was a “what’s next” type plan that lead us to the formation of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. It was the intent really from the outset was to develop a cohesive and coherent strategy for helping the profession overcome many of the problems that were identified in those two studies.

And I’ll just say finally, even though now have data enough with those studies brought to the table, these are long-standing problems in the legal profession, and they’ve been well, well understood for a long time.

Legal Executive Institute:    Yeah, this isn’t something that’s new to the legal industry, certainly. I know that the report was very kind of broad in scope, and very all-encompassing. Can you kind of boil down what were the main points of the report? What were the main takeaways from the work on this?

Patrick Krill: The report’s recommendations focused on five central and over-arching themes. The first is that we need to identify stakeholders and the role that each of us can play in reducing the level of toxicity in our profession, and encouraging greater well-being. Put another way, there is something for everybody to do, and it’s important to start out by identifying what it is that everybody can do.


It was the intent really from the outset was to develop a cohesive and coherent strategy for helping the profession overcome many of the problems that were identified in those two studies. And I’ll just say finally, even though now have data enough with those studies brought to the table, these are long-standing problems in the legal profession, and they’ve been well, well understood for a long time.


The second theme is eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors, because as we’ll discuss, lawyers are very reluctant to reach out and let anybody know that they might be struggling.

The third theme, the third organizing principle, is really emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence. We need to underscore that. There is a significant relationship between mental health and a lawyer’s duty of competence.

Fourth, there’s a need to educate lawyers, judges and law students on lawyer well-being issues. These are historically not things that we get a lot of education about, if we get any, and so that really does need to be a priority, providing greater education.

And then the fifth theme is that we can take small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced, and how lawyers are regulated, to instill greater well-being in the profession.

Legal Executive Institute:    Right. Well that certainly makes sense. I know in the report they talked about reasons, primary reasons that the legal profession needs to address this now. What were those reasons?

Patrick Krill: Well, essentially it boils down to three pillars, if you will. One, that it’s good for business. Having lower levels of addiction, lower levels of depression, lower levels of anxiety, that leads to attorneys who are performing at a higher level. In firms, in organizations, entities that are able to function at a higher level because their members are healthier and their members are thriving and their members aren’t struggling. So that’s the one pillar that is good for your business, it’s good for your organization. Organizational success.

The second thing is really more tied to ethics. And so, I guess you could characterize that as being good for the client. It’s not a stretch to understand how somebody struggling with a mental health or an addiction problem is going to be more likely, or at a greater risk for struggling also with ethical compliance, and really providing good client service. To the extent that we’re able to help our lawyers and law students be healthier, what we’re actually then in turn doing is helping the public and protecting the public. So that’s the second pillar, that it’s good for the clients.

The third reason why it’s important for us to get serious about these issues, is it’s just the right thing to do, from a humanitarian perspective. Individuals who are struggling with an addiction or a mental health problem are oftentimes really going through a very painful and difficult experience, and it affects not only them, but many of the people around them. To the extent that we care about our fellow lawyers and law students, and our colleagues and peers, it’s important to really prioritize these issues, and to prioritize lawyer well-being.

Legal Executive Institute:    I see. That’s definitely, definitely true. You talked earlier about the five central themes that the report came away with. Recommendations, if you will, of what firms or law schools could do. Just to kind of put it in a plain context. If I’m a law firm or the leader of a law firm, and I know one of my lawyers is struggling, and I suspect it may be an addiction or mental health issue, what can I do? What are the steps that you would prefer to see a firm take?

Patrick Krill: Well, the most important thing that a firm can do is to not do nothing, essentially. Inaction is the only non-option. Unfortunately, it’s a common path for many firms when confronted with a suspected impairment, or they have a suspicion that one of their attorneys may be struggling. Oftentimes it’s because they don’t know what to do, or culturally within the culture of a given firm, the norm really is that you just don’t ask those types of personal questions. You don’t interfere unless something has become so egregious that you really have no option.

I’ll say that’s the wrong approach. I think firms need to be more proactive and more willing to intervene early when they have a suspicion that somebody might be struggling. Not only are they protecting themselves and their clients, and reducing the risk that something could go terribly wrong, they are also going to be helping the person who may be struggling. Addiction and depression can both be progressive conditions, progressive diseases, and by intervening early, by reaching out a hand early, you’re more likely to reduce the ultimate amount of struggling that that person is going to have to endure.

I think that’s not necessarily a very tangible answer in terms of a practical step, but conceptually, I think the most important thing to understand is to do something. To reach out, to intervene, have a discussion, approach the person.


I think firms need to be more proactive and more willing to intervene early when they have a suspicion that somebody might be struggling. Not only are they protecting themselves and their clients, and reducing the risk that something could go terribly wrong, they are also going to be helping the person who may be struggling. 


And firms should avail themselves of resources that are available to them. There are professionals out there to guide them, there are lawyers’ assistant programs, there are individuals quite frankly such as myself, but there are also a lot of mental health professionals, treatment providers, who really do specialize in working with professionals such as lawyers.

To the extent that a firm is uncomfortable and they really don’t know how to navigate these matters, there are a lot of people that they can reach out to and turn to for professional guidance.

Legal Executive Institute:    That makes sense. Does the report try to quantify the depth of this problem with any statistics, as far as how many lawyers, you know industry wide, may be suffering from this?

Patrick Krill: Well so what the report does reference is the two studies that I started out by mentioning. One was the 2016 ABA Hazelden Betty Ford study that I led, which revealed that between 21% and 36% of licensed currently practicing attorneys qualify as problem drinkers. That doesn’t mean that between 21% and 36% of lawyers are impaired, but it certainly means they’re at risk for impairment because of their drinking habits.

Similarly, we know from that very current data that almost 30% of lawyers are struggling with some level of depression. The majority of that 30%, it’s moderate or more severe. So it’s not just mild depression.

addiction

Patrick R. Krill

We do have current data suggesting that there is essentially a behavioral health crisis among licensed and currently practicing attorneys. And again, the study on law students demonstrated similar, not identical but similar, figures really. Where we have a lot of unhealthy substance use, a lot of mental health distress, and a lot of reluctance on the part of law students to let anybody know they’re struggling or to reach out for help.

The task force report does point to those two studies specifically, and it’s largely built on their findings.

Legal Executive Institute:    Right, right. Well those certainly are alarming numbers. You mentioned several times already the cultural aspect of the legal profession. Is the way the legal profession is operates as a partnership path, or as the pressure on law students, does it contribute to this situation? Specifically, what happens to someone pursuing a legal career? Is that a unique aspect that’s adding to this situation, as opposed to other professions?

Patrick Krill: I do think there are some unique structural elements of the legal profession that contribute to the elevated levels of both addiction and mental health distress. We know, those of us in the addiction treatment world, we know that chronic stress is one of the more well-documented and well-understood risk factors for the onset of addiction. So, coming into the legal profession, beginning in law school, you are exposing yourself to a well-known risk factor for addiction.

That’s one piece of it. But then beyond that, there is a normalization within the legal profession of frequent and sometimes heavy alcohol consumption. It is kind of woven into everything we do. And again, that starts in law school and it certainly carries on into the practice of law, especially in private firm settings or context.

But then beyond that, and there are a number … I mean, I really could enumerate several more reasons, but in the interest of time, I’ll mention the third sort of primary element that is sort of unique to the legal profession, which I believe is implicated in the levels of behavioral health problems we have.

And that is specifically how attorneys are very concerned with their reputation. They’re very, sometimes paranoid really, about letting anybody know that there might be a problem, that they might be having a problem. That they might have a personal struggle, that they might need help. The fears relate not only to they don’t want to jeopardize their license, but they also don’t want to jeopardize their reputation, or their standing in the firm, or the trust that their clients might have in them.


I do think there are some unique structural elements of the legal profession that contribute to the elevated levels of both addiction and mental health distress. 


So there are a whole host of reasons, incentives if you will, that the legal profession provides for people to conceal their problems. And why that is so important is because, as I mentioned, addiction and mental health problems can be progressive in nature. So if somebody is incentivized to hide the fact that they’re struggling and to deal with it themselves, and to deny that something is wrong, the problem is probably just going to get worse.

Legal Executive Institute:    Certainly. You can certainly see that, and certainly see how the legal culture and the culture, like you said the structural impediments to seeking help could be very strong in the legal industry. Now that the report is out, what do you hope happens? What would you like to see happen, going forward with this?

Patrick Krill: Well, I’m encouraged by the amount of support that this report has within sort of the various leadership channels in the profession. For example, the report has already been endorsed by the National Conference of Chief Justices, and as you probably know, Chief Justices in respective individual states played very significant roles, not only in determining how lawyers are regulated and what the sort of expectations around the practice of law are in a given state, but they also help to set the tone. And they can really have a significant influence on the practice of law in a state.

And now that the Conference of Chief Justices has come out and endorsed this report, and they are adopting an action plan to really sort of disseminate it broadly and widely throughout their individual states, I have a sense that that is going to have essentially a trickle-down effect throughout you know, the bar associations and various other leadership groups within individual states.

At the same time, we are working hard to raise awareness about the report within the private sector, if you will, in the legal profession, within law firms and law schools. And our hope is that there will be a lot of similar adoption and endorsement of the report. People will use it, they’ll follow the recommendations not only for the general profession, but also the recommendations that are very specific to their respective sort of domain within the profession.

Legal Executive Institute:    Well I wish a lot of success, and I believe the report will open a lot of peoples’ eyes to this problem. I appreciate you talking to us today about this.

Patrick Krill: Great. It was my pleasure. It’s an important subject, and I appreciate you making the time for it.

Thank you. And thank you for listening to the Legal Executive Institute podcast. Join us again for more podcasts on our website.