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Law Practice Today

February 2024

Why Your Legal Organization's Approach to Alcohol Impacts DEI-B

K Brooke Welch


  • Decentering alcohol in our professional relationship-building would expand diversity and inclusion.
  • Alcohol culture impacts disability inclusion, caregivers, and financial well-being.
  • Decentering alcohol can create a culture that supports professional access, social connection, and meaningful relationships.
Why Your Legal Organization's Approach to Alcohol Impacts DEI-B

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What if we could improve inclusion and support professional access for 20% of our legal community?

What if we could impact a spectrum of valued colleagues that transcends race, gender, religion, health status, ability, trauma experience, and lifestyle?

What if—at the same time—we could support the well-being of our legal community?

We can: By decentering alcohol for our professional relationship-building.

The Status Quo

Alcohol has long been a staple of our legal culture. Starting in law school, we’re taught that alcohol is a solution for both connection and coping with stress. As a tool for connection, alcohol can alleviate social anxiety and provide a sense of camaraderie for many people. It’s used as a lubricant to create a sense of comfort for awkward networking events. Alcohol is a constant at our conferences, evening workplace events, and retreats.

In fact, 80% of attorneys drink alcohol, compared to the national average of 62%. So it’s not unusual that many legal professionals prefer events that serve alcohol.

But what about the 20% who do not drink? Who are they? And who are the drinkers who prefer an alternative to connecting with alcohol, either short-term or just for one day? Often it’s the very people we want to support, recruit, promote, and retain. 

The Diverse Spectrum

In 2019, I founded the Tiny Adventures Social RVA (Alcohol-Free) Meetup group in Richmond, Virginia. Because this is an alcohol-free group, I assumed we would attract people in recovery for alcohol and substance abuse. But I was wrong! Those in recovery represent a small percentage of our 500+ current members. Instead, I learned there is a diverse spectrum of non-drinkers and drinkers who value connecting without alcohol.

I started to research and, over time, compiled an ever-growing list that impacts our workplace:

  1. Recovery (Alcohol and Substance Use Disorder)
  2. Gender
  3. Religion
  4. Race
  5. Health Status
  6. Trauma Survivors
  7. Lifestyle
  8. Ability
  9. Caregivers
  10. Financial Well-being

It’s uncanny how this list dovetails with so many DEI mission statements. In a prior article, I discussed several of these categories. Since then, I learned how alcohol culture also impacts disability inclusion, caregivers, and financial well-being.

  • Neurodiversity is a growing DEI-B topic in the legal sector. Haley Moss, an advocate for disability inclusion and neurodiversity, wrote a powerful article in Fastcase revealing a tool for managing her autism: she does not drink in professional settings to cope with loud, crowded, and often overwhelming events.
  • While creating resources and programming to support caregivers, a professional development leader discovered an unexpected request: Parents value nonalcoholic options and non-evening events because they want to spend time and be present with their children.
  • The financial outlay of “getting drinks” affects those with lower pay, student loans, or family obligations. A recent Gallup study shows that alcohol use increases with college education, peaking at those with $100k+ income. 

If we pay attention, we’ll recognize that nondrinkers, as well as drinkers with personal reasons to choose nonalcohol alternatives, are all around us.


Disclosure is also a real issue. Who wants to reveal their efforts at recovery with senior leadership? Or their family history with breast cancer? Or their experience with sexual assault? Who wants to divulge their early-stage pregnancy? Or their disability? Who wants to risk stigma and being treated like an “other”?

In 2021, I decided to publicly disclose my recovery status in my profession . . . after nearly 14 years of sobriety. It took a startling figure in the Stress, Drink, Leave report to find the courage. According to that report, nearly 56% of women attorneys were engaging in risky drinking and 34% in hazardous drinking. I felt called to service. But it’s been a vulnerable and often lonely road. For now, it’s prudent for most legal professionals in recovery to maintain their privacy.

Before my decision, I involuntarily disclosed in two different workplaces because the leadership created drinking-centric events. One involved a beer-oriented bar, which I discussed in my earlier article. Another organization hosted a happy hour at their headquarters for (mostly female) senior leaders from all over the country. Bafflingly, they only offered wine. I ended up awkwardly standing in the kitchen by the water cooler. Soon thereafter, I left the organization. 

Professional Opportunity

How does this impact professional opportunity? At its core, access equals opportunity. Initiatives such as the Inclusion Footprint acknowledge this reality, seeking to ensure “fair and equal access to quality work, influential people, and other opportunities.”

A default to alcohol culture is an underexplored factor in access: If we’re not connecting socially with our leaders and teams, we are less likely to attract:

  • Mentorship and sponsorship
  • Quality assignments and promotion
  • Leadership roles

We get the message early on that drinking provides access to important relationships. In his Exploring Sobriety blog, Benya Clark observed that “nearly every single day there was at least one event at my school that had free beer or wine” and countless law school club events centered around drinking.

Thankfully, a number of law schools are evolving in their sponsored events, but a recent Bloomberg article by Jessica Blaemire noted that drinking may simply move off campus. Almost a quarter (23%) of law students increased alcohol usage because of law school–related issues.

Diversity programs can also be tone-deaf about how alcohol culture impedes access to their own leaders. Happy hours are ubiquitous at industry conferences. Wine tasting is a favorite among women’s affinity groups. I know trailblazing women leaders who cling to a wine-tasting fundraiser “tradition.”

Unsurprisingly, I hear from nondrinkers about a pressure to fit in, pretending to drink, being asked “what are you drinking,” or simply not attending alcohol-oriented events. As Haley Moss noted, “There is a distinct pressure to drink, even when you have a disability. There is a desire to fit in, to avoid the difficult questions, fit in, or impress someone who has influence in your industry.”

And leaders set these cultural expectations. One well-meaning leader earnestly told me that “mocktails” support nondrinkers so “people don’t know you’re not drinking.” Sadly, one nondrinking minority attorney relayed to me a story in which a partner said, “I don’t trust people who don’t drink.” He left the firm.

Data published in the Harvard Business Review linked high belonging to “a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.” We are missing ways to improve belonging by shifting our approach to alcohol.

What Can Leaders Do?

To date, many of the changes related to alcohol policies arise from shocking data about substance abuse and mental health in the legal profession. More than 200 organizations are signatories of the ABA Well-Being Pledge with a promise to “disrupt the status quo of drinking-based events.” A recent article in Law Practice Today showed progress with providing nonalcoholic options and activity-based events.

But a well-being focus is not enough. It’s time to expand our WHY to inclusion, belonging, professional success, recruiting, and retention for 20+% of your employees—the diverse spectrum of nondrinkers.

Organizations can:

  • Educate DEI-B leaders, in collaboration with well-being, HR, and event staff.
  • Engage ERG/affinity group leaders and members for feedback and insight.
  • Evaluate existing social norms for mentorship and internship programs.
  • Train managers and include them in orientation programming.

And, on a personal note, please consider how to holistically support those in recovery for alcohol and substance abuse disorders with compassion, policies, and practices. See my recent LinkedIn post for more detail.

We have a tremendous opportunity to align our DEI-B values for the spectrum of team members who are impacted when we default to alcohol for connection. As organizations and individuals, we can adapt the ABA Well-Being Pledge #2 in a DEI-B dynamic. In this way, we can create a culture that supports professional access, social connections, and meaningful relationships.