Dry January – firms must build on it

‘Dry January’ is here and the month-long alcohol-free challenge will be a breeze for some who are embracing it. However, it will be extremely difficult for those with a less than healthy relationship with booze.

Alcohol has, particularly in the bigger firms, been a fixture of the legal workplace culture for as long as anyone can remember, but it’s time for senior managers to have a rethink as to how they use (or abuse) alcohol in the context of their practice and staff members.

Harmful alcohol drinking in the UK is, according to the data, the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15 to 49-year-olds. A shocking revelation last summer was that 10 per cent of people in hospital beds are alcohol-dependent while double that number use alcohol harmfully (is there any wonder the NHS is at breaking point?)

Homing in on the immediate impact in the workplace, it can damage productivity and mental wellbeing and have a negative impact on a lawyer’s relationship with colleagues and with clients. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that professionals are far more likely to consume alcohol than others.

The risks in the legal profession are clear, particularly a poorer client service and a greater higher risk of complains and negligence claims.

An annual survey by the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society (JLD) highlighted that alcohol is a contributing factor to mental ill-health in the legal profession – and the JLD is working hard to encourage the profession to embrace a healthy drinking culture.

At the start of 2020 to mark Dry January, the JLD launched a guide, Creating a Healthy Alcohol Culture in the Legal Profession, which explains the importance of addressing the drinking culture, such as the obvious health benefits, reducing bullying and harassment and promoting diversity and inclusion.

The guide also sets out what firms can do, and offers recommendations and suggestions for law firms and individuals (and other organisations), including:

  • Suggestions for networking activities that do not focus on alcohol.
  • Pick venues that cater for everyone.
  • At events, flag up that a variety of non-alcoholic options will be available.
  • Tips for negotiating with caterers and alternative labels for events instead of “drinks”.
  • Replace ‘boozy’ gifts with, for example, hampers, a dinner for two or days out voucher.

Laura Uberoi, Law Society Council Member for the JLD, wrote the guidance and says the JLD’s intention is not to stop people drinking alcohol altogether. She explains: “Instead, it is promoting awareness and creating opportunities to foster a healthier, more inclusive approach to work-related activities.

“Changing drinking habits and taking responsibility for not getting drunk is left to the individual. However, as a profession, there is a collective responsibility to make positive change and choice easier for our members, clients and intermediaries.”

The JLD also suggests firms should offer training to managers on how to identify and signpost individuals who may need support; and consider recruiting ‘ambassadors’ in the firm to promote the recommendations in its guidance.

The number of law firms adopting alcohol policies is rising, reflecting the fact that it is increasingly recognised that a top-down culture change is required. As the JLD guidance says, “it is important that leaders embrace a healthy workplace and explain to workforces (and clients) why a serious approach to alcohol is required”.

So is ‘Dry January’ a mere gimmick or a vital starting point to encourage business (and individuals who need to revaluate their relationship with alcohol) to rethink the role of alcohol? Is dry January enough?

Not for some: last February, an anonymous barrister – a self-confessed recovering alcoholic – wrote a candid account of his recovery and the impact on his professional life. He wrote: “For the first few years at the Bar my behaviour around drinking did not seem that different from many of my peers. There was the odd night of when I embarrassed myself through drunken behaviour or failed to make it into chambers the next day.

“But if you told me then I had a drink problem, I would not have listened to you. Yes, I would admit I was a heavy drinker, but I would never have considered myself an alcoholic. But over the years, I lost control over how much I drank and when I drank.”

The state of his professional practice reflected the increase in his drinking. His descent into alcoholism eventually affected and consumed his entire life. But he recovered with the help of friends and family - and the support of organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and LawCare, the Barristers Benevolent Association and resources on the Wellbeing at the Bar website. He also left the bar for a few years (the best thing he could have done, he said).

No one would argue ‘Dry January’ is ‘enough’. But if it proves to be the start of someone’s long road to recovering and the raising of the risks associated with alcohol in the workplace - does that not make it worth it?

Firms should be sensitive to the fact that there may be staff who are recovering alcoholics. The JLD’s guidance states: “It is fundamental that individuals do not feel the need to justify why they are not drinking on a given occasion. This means making sure that everyone in the profession is aware that it is not appropriate to ask why another person is not drinking.

“The question will nearly always make the person uncomfortable and, if nothing else, usually lead to an awkward exchange. Teams should be encouraged to intervene if they do hear such a question and move the conversation on to different ground, so that peers do not feel the need to find an “excuse”


The LawCare charity offers invaluable help to lawyers struggling with alcohol and has done for many years. Its online factsheet, for example, provides a straightforward guide to key facts around the recommended daily alcohol intake, a checklist of factors that could suggest alcohol dependence and tips on how initially to deal with the issues.

We recommend every law firm and all individuals within firms take these issues seriously – whether or not they embrace ‘Dry January’.



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