Glass of champagne? ‘No, I‘d rather make hats instead.’

Glass of champagne? ‘No, I‘d rather make hats instead.’

Why young lawyers are turning away from alcohol-related social events.

At a recent Sunday lunch party, a middle-aged lawyer reached in front of me to take a swig from her friend’s wine glass. “I’m doing Dry January,” she said with a smile. Somewhat non-plussed, I looked at the large tumbler of orange juice from which she had been sipping. It remained stubbornly full. Five days days into the New Year and bidding farewell to festive excess, most of the guests were conspicuously modest in their consumption.  

The following day’s legal headlines were far from eye-catching: the first Monday in January is understandably one of the hardest times for journalists to generate copy. But one story stood out: ‘Dry January as juniors ban alcohol from events’ ran the Law Society Gazette headline. “No alcohol will be served at junior lawyer events this month in support of ‘Dry January’, the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has announced,” explained the article underneath.

JLD represents around 70,000 law students, trainees and solicitors up to five years’ post-qualification experience (PQE). The ‘no alcohol’ initiative is not a fad: instead, it reflects a generational shift. Last year, a survey by the National Union of Students found that 21% of the student cohort are now teetotal while the demand for alcohol-free university events is on the rise. The report also found that almost a quarter of students believe there should be more social events at university that do not involve any drinking.

When it was launched in 2015, over 400 students applied for alcohol-free accommodation at St Andrews University – far above the 132 rooms that were available. Others universities soon followed, including Aberdeen, Bristol, Bath, and Sheffield. International students and domestic teetotallers have fuelled demand as British universities now compete to create a more inclusive environment for those who choose not to drink.  

In making their mark, Generation Z lawyers are also beginning to spread their values into the workplace. Among them is sobriety and the JLD initiative is an example of their increasing influence. The guidance note on Dry January accepts that responsibility for not getting drunk is up to each individual, but it also states that law firms have a ‘collective responsibility’ to change drinking habits.

The note adds that junior lawyers and those at recruitment events often ‘feel pressure to consume alcohol to show that they can fit in with the team’ and ‘any pressure from a more senior figure could be construed as workplace bullying’. Recommendations include offering better low-alcohol or alcohol-free alternatives at firm events instead of ‘a warm jug of orange juice or something fizzy’.

Further JLD recommendations suggest that law firms should re-label work social events to divert the initial perception away from alcohol, and events currently labelled as ‘drinks’, ‘champagne receptions’ or ‘wine and nibbles’ should be relabelled as ‘socialising’, ‘networking’, ‘refreshments’ or ‘gatherings’.

Another JLD suggestion is that firms focus on activities that do not revolve around alcohol. A long list of potential alternative activities includes: paintballing, ping-pong, historical walks, mini-golf, quizzes, cheese tasting, mixed netball, cake decorating, activity days, tea ceremonies, windsurfing, and even hat-making. Although it may be hard to envisage large groups of young lawyers windsurfing after work, or gathering en masse to assemble hats, they have a point.

Some comments made on the Legal Cheek website in relation to an article about the JLD initiative are revealing: ‘Sorry, but if somebody isn’t drinking then I’m suspicious.’ ‘If you’re a top commercial lawyer who’s smashing deals and working 90-hour work weeks, you’ll need a stiff drink at the end. No one’s in a position to tell me what I can or can’t do.’ ‘2 minutes with someone this sanctimonious and dull and I would need more than just one drink.’ ‘What a load of nonsense, how am I supposed to pour champagne over my model girlfriend after smashing a PE deal?’

A strong measure of hyperbole and English sarcasm perhaps, but it is clear that some young lawyers feel genuinely threatened by any move towards breaking the deeply engrained link between social activity and alcohol. And yet the evidence points to a range of problems in law firms, not least the abuse of power by older male partners of much younger female associates, especially when alcohol is involved.

Only last October Ryan Beckwith, a former restructuring and insolvency partner with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, groped an ‘exceptionally drunk’ junior female colleague after a night of drinking. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that Beckwith engaged in sexual activity with her in circumstances in which she was ‘intoxicated to the extent that her judgment was impaired’.

Two months later, another Freshfields partner Nick Williams left the firm following an investigation into his conduct, relating to #MeToo concerns. It is unknown whether alcohol played a part in Williams’ departure, but there are other recent examples where it did.

In December, it was revealed that former Baker Mckenzie London managing partner Gary Senior propositioned a junior lawyer at 3am after asking her to stay behind in his hotel room, according to evidence given to the SDT. The incident was allegedly hushed up by the firm, while Senior kept his job and the junior lawyer left with a payoff after signing a non-disclosure agreement.

Andrew Tabachnik QC, prosecuting for the Solicitors Regulation Authority, said: “The first respondent [Senior] while managing partner of a leading UK and global firm propositioned Person A, a six months or so qualified associate solicitor in the early hours…having asked her to stay behind in his hotel room when all others left.”

Senior admitted that his actions were aggravated by alcohol consumption: he drank during a work dinner, then went to a bar and a nightclub. Returning to his hotel and finding the bar closed, Senior and four junior lawyers went to his room where they emptied the mini bar and ordered more beer and wine., before three of them left. The SRA hearing has been postponed until April.

Meanwhile in an exclusive piece about the London office of Jones Day, Legal Week recently reported: ‘Recollections of episodes involving sex and alcohol were particularly common. One woman, who spent several years as an associate at the firm, says: “There was an endemic culture of sexual inappropriateness among partners and associates and trainees – people felt they could behave inappropriately and get away with it.’’ ’

The issue of alcohol and abuse of power are not unique to individual partners in the London offices of Freshfields, Baker McKenzie or Jones Day. These are merely the public manifestation of a much wider problem that is, or has been, prevalent at many law firms. 

In January, the FT reported that ‘Law firm drinking culture is having a negative impact on lawyers’ mental health and contributes towards bullying and harassment.’ The article noted that there were ‘concerns about the prevalence of heavy drinking in the industry in the wake of a series of high-profile sexual misconduct scandals at City law firms.’

Among young lawyers who were surveyed about their work levels and mental health last year, more than 93 per cent reported feeling stressed in their role. Many of them said that they used alcohol as a coping mechanism and that it was a contributing factor to mental health issues.

Windsurfing and hat-making may not provide an automatic solution to these problems, but they certainly can’t do any harm.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com