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Law Practice Today

October 2022

To Increase Well-Being and DEIB, Let's Evolve Beyond Alcohol Culture

K Brooke Welch


  • The focus on alcohol for connection and coping in the legal industry impacts our health and our inclusiveness.
To Increase Well-Being and DEIB, Let's Evolve Beyond Alcohol Culture Greig

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“Sometimes I can’t go to bars.” That text message is how my boss and the “big boss” learned that I’m in recovery for alcohol use disorder. I kept this personal information private at my workplace up until that point. But, I didn't know what else to do in this situation. The big boss expected all staff members to attend the special treat she announced at our monthly Friday meeting: A sponsored happy hour at "Max's Taphouse.”

I tried. I walked down with my colleagues. I sat down. And, I started to review the menu. Beer, beer, and more beer. Rows of beer taps at every view. I couldn't handle it. I abruptly left. I ran into the big boss on the way out and I lied to her. I said that I forgot something at the office. She told me that I better hurry back. But, I didn't. I stayed at the office, feeling nervous and excluded.

Then, the text came in from my boss: "Where are you? You need to be here." I knew she was right. But, that wasn't an option for me at that particular moment. I needed some spiritual preparation to go into an alcohol-oriented experience. I simply could not transition quickly enough for a spontaneous gathering. And, thus, I sent the text, outing myself.

On Monday, the big boss invited me to her office and closed the door. She apologized somewhat, but it was awkward. I was now an official “other.”

In addition to unnecessarily disclosing my private medical history, I also had good reason to keep this information to myself. Stigma. The reaction to recovery for alcoholism and mental health issues varies. But, there’s usually a post-news adjustment period, even among kind and compassionate colleagues and friends. “Should we invite Brooke to …?”  Some even react defensively about their own drinking, as if it’s about them. Some react with condescending pity ("Good for you!"). Frankly, I wanted to avoid each of these scenarios in my workplace.

Today, I’m open to sharing my experience with overcoming these obstacles to help others. But, it’s still uncomfortable. I know that I’m exposing myself to being an “other.” And, I do miss out on certain relationship-building opportunities.

Alcohol Use is a Proven Well-Being Risk in the Legal Profession

This incident, as well as my original well-being crisis, occurred before the lawyer well-being movement gained its recent momentum. Thanks to dedicated advocates and researchers, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published a 2016 study putting data behind an anecdotal understanding. The survey found that between 21-36% of lawyers qualified as problem drinkers, and that at least 20% struggled with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress.

ABA lawyer well-being advocates kicked into gear, forming a Presidential Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession in September 2017, releasing the The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, Well-being Toolkit for Lawyers & Legal Employers, and launching the seven-point ABA Well-Being Pledge. The pledge made clear: the legal profession needs to disrupt the emphasis on alcohol at events. The pledge signatories (now over 200 firms and law schools) committed to challenge the expectation that all events include alcohol and to seek creative alternatives.

While there is progress (mocktails, anyone?), the recent Stress, Drink, Leave study, released in May 2021 and sponsored by the DC Bar and California Lawyers Association, stressed the “seeming omnipresence of alcohol within law firm gatherings and other professional events.” Indeed, the study found that workplace attitudes and permissiveness toward alcohol use were primary predictors of risky drinking among men and women.

Organizational Belonging is Key to Well-being

Importantly, the Path to Well-Being report also highlighted a sense of organizational belongingness as a key contributor to well-being, defined as feeling personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others.

The report observed that social support from colleagues can serve as a protective factor for coping with stress and preventing burnout. Relationships counteract disconnection and isolation, which is an important factor in today’s COVID-impacted hybrid working dynamic.

Emphasizing Alcohol for Relationship-Building Undermines DEIB Goals

For many, alcohol inspires a sense of belonging and conviviality. The legal profession has long defaulted to emphasizing alcohol for connection and coping (e.g., “Happy Hours,” “Bar Reviews,” networking receptions). An event without alcohol present can be rare, even with experience-based activities. The “&” is pervasive in our society (i.e. Bowling & Beer, Cooking & Wine Pairing).

But, who does not belong when workplace social events emphasize alcohol? Who is potentially excluded from relationship-building that can advance their career, as well as improve their well-being?

Despite so much recent commitment and innovation related to DEIB, many workplaces ignore the elephant in the room: under-represented attorneys are most impacted by this default to alcohol, particularly when access to organizational leaders is limited.

Starting in 2019, I learned first-hand about the diversity of non-drinkers and those who prefer to connect without alcohol by starting a Meetup group in Richmond, Va. The group, “Tiny Adventures RVA,” is intentionally sober-friendly and embraces being present, engaged, and open to new experiences and connections. With over 70 events, we’ve explored so many alcohol-free “tiny adventures” around Richmond. Events include hikes, museum crawls, and even online and in-person improv. We have so much fun and rarely even talk about alcohol during events. We’re too busy connecting.

When I started the Meetup group, I expected to attract members in recovery for substance abuse and alcohol use disorder (which does qualify as a workplace disability). The diverse interest level surprised me and I learned something important. There is a wide spectrum of motivations to seek connection without emphasizing alcohol. In fact, the majority of active members are not in formal substance abuse recovery. Here are evidence-based examples that mirror my experience.

1. Medical & Gender

The National Institute for Health reports these categories should avoid alcohol intake:

  • Taking medications that interact with alcohol (including, among others, medication for coronary heart disease, anxiety, epilepsy, ADHD, depression (26 medications!), diabetes, and high blood pressure).
  • Managing a medical condition that can be made worse by drinking.
  • Recovering from alcohol use disorder or unable to control the amount you drink.
  • Pregnant or might be pregnant.

2. Race, Religion, & Generation

Alcohol-driven events can exclude those traditionally under-represented in the legal profession. Caucasians drink more than any other demographic group: 70%, compared to under 60% for Hispanic, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Asian people. The 2015 “What Makes Lawyers Happy” study also found Caucasian lawyers consumed the most alcohol and African Americans the least.

My Meetup group members also include those who choose not to drink based on their religion (i.e, Islam, Latter Day Saints). A recent LinkedIn article provides insight into the “predicament” for Muslims in the workplace.

There is also a generational shift. In the US, the increase in those abstaining from alcohol is largely driven by 21-34 year olds.

3. Safety

Even drinkers may avoid alcohol-focused activities for safety and/or trauma reasons. Approximately one in four women have experienced sexual assault, and studies estimate that 50% of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both.

In addition, alcohol use is associated with perpetration of and victimization from verbal and physical workplace aggression, as well as experiencing microaggressions by people of color.

Emphasizing Alcohol Creates Pressure to “Fit In”

The Stress, Drink, Leave study found that approximately 80% of men and women identified as current drinkers, which shows the prevalence of alcohol in the industry. But, how many actually want to drink at work events?

A recent study in the UK by Drinkaware highlighted the pressure by colleagues to drink, in order to fit in and belong. The data is revealing: two in five (43%) working adults reported drinking more alcohol than they intended at work events. Nearly two-fifths (38%) drank more because they did not want to seem impolite by refusing a drink. More than half (53%) said they would like there to be less pressure to drink.

This type of study does not exist in the legal industry, but, given the elevated level of alcohol use, results could be similar. Based on recent conversations with peers, they felt the pressure to drink starting in law school.

In addition, non-drinkers may feel pressured to attend alcohol-oriented events in order to ensure they are viewed as team players. According to research by Niznik Behavioral Health, among people who preferred not to drink at work events, 22% made excuses to get out of their obligation to attend, 14% avoided attending, and 12% pretended to drink. Nearly 38% of those who prefer not to drink indicated a concern of being judged negatively if they did not show up. What if your mentor says, “Let's get a drink?”

My personal experience echoes this study. The “Max’s Taphouse” incident happened several years ago. Yet, I will not be attending or promoting an event this month because it is a wine-tasting fundraiser.

A Way Forward

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The ABA pledge provides a seven point framework, including pledge #2 to disrupt alcohol-oriented events by seeking creative alternatives and providing non-alcohol options at events. The initial aim of the pledge, however, was to support substance abuse and mental health awareness, education, and policies.

Now it’s time to intentionally treat this pledge as supporting DEIB, as well.

Let’s emphasize connection and de-emphasize alcohol. I challenge leaders to ask themselves: Is alcohol needed for this relationship-building event? How can I decrease the focus on alcohol for social bonding in my team?

My hope and vision is a cultural shift where it doesn’t matter if you’re a drinker or non-drinker. It’s just not an issue because alcohol is not a centerpiece. “Fitting in” doesn’t require adapting to a drinking social norm. Because we all fit.