Firms are taking steps to sideline alcohol culture to create healthier attitudes and alternatives, says Laura Uberoi.

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This year I launched a campaign focused on alcohol consumption in the legal profession and the ways we can tackle negative relationships with it. Unfortunately, we are still reading of cases before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that involve potentially career ending behaviour exacerbated by alcohol, or the increasingly damaging effects of alcohol on solicitors.

At the beginning of each month, the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society (JLD) conducts a poll. In August, it asked junior lawyers whether they had felt pressured to drink alcohol at a work event. Worryingly, many said they had – and also reported drinking more than they otherwise would due to workplace pressures.

Since starting the campaign, I’ve been investigating what organisations are doing to create healthy cultures around alcohol. The benefits of ensuring workplaces create healthy relationships with alcohol include positive impacts on mental and physical health, diversity and inclusion, bullying and sexual harassment and productivity.

My investigations revealed some good examples for the whole profession, including:

More social gatherings

Lawyers are now being invited to networking, refreshments and social gatherings rather than drinks, champagne receptions or wine and nibbles. This removes the initial perception, if not expectation, that such events will focus on alcohol. Firms adopting these descriptions for their events are also ensuring they do not focus on alcohol in two ways.

First, they arrange activities not based purely on drinking, such as arts and crafts, a sporting event or a gallery viewing. Second, interesting non-alcoholic drinks are offered alongside any alcoholic drinks. Trays of welcome drinks are no longer only alcoholic, which then forces an individual to ask publicly for an alternative (often then to be invited to pour your own soft drink – usually a fruit juice or water – at the other side of the room).

Rewards and prizes

Lawyers are no longer receiving just a bottle of booze as a reward for a work achievement, an office thank you or a competition win. Many lawyers shared their examples of the best gifts they have received, which include restaurant vouchers, activity days and hampers.

Demanding more from caterers

Venues and caterers are increasingly accommodating non-alcoholic requests. Organisations are now negotiating hard with caterers to ensure any offering includes a variety of non-alcoholic drinks that go beyond warm jugs of orange juice and cans of cola. There is also a shift towards healthier alternatives such as low sugar drinks. Healthy options will become more readily available as we continue exerting pressure on caterers.

It’s all about timing

It was once expected that an evening event would come with a glass of wine or beer. However, the profession is now questioning whether events are better suited to a breakfast, lunch or afternoon gathering. Events at different times of day offer particular benefits for those at risk of otherwise being excluded, such as lawyers with young families, carer responsibilities or disabilities.

No more questions

I am delighted to hear that clear messages are being sent through organisations that it is unacceptable to ask why someone is not drinking and that there is no expectation to provide an excuse. There are many reasons why our colleagues are not drinking, whether for religious or health reasons, personal preference or bad experiences. Teams should be encouraged to intervene if they hear the question, ‘Why are you not drinking?’ so that our peers do not feel the need to explain themselves.

Another charter for the policy books

Most people recognise that culture change needs to come from the top down, so it is important that leaders embrace a healthy workplace and explain to their workforce and clients why a serious approach to alcohol is required. Training for staff on alcohol related issues is necessary to communicate the firm’s message.

Policies are commonplace in our firms, so a handout on the firm’s approach to alcohol including the above strategies is a great start.

Laura Uberoi is a solicitor at MacFarlanes. She is also a Law Society council member and president of Westminster and Holborn Law Society.

This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal in November 2019 and is reproduced by kind permission.