The Sober Curious Lawyer

The sober curious movement is taking off. When I first heard the term, my baby-boomer, twelve-step mentality was to immediately associate it with “alcoholics” who wondered what it is like to be sober. I was way off target. It is a lifestyle movement being embraced by millennials at an ever-increasing rate.  “Sober curious” bars that offer only “mocktails” are becoming more prevelant.

The movmeent is particularly relevant to mellinieal lawyers. A demographic in the legal profession that has a problem drinking rate of over thirty percent. You read that right. Over one in three. As someone who has not taken a drink in over twelve years as a result of problem drinking, I do not think I am the best person to comment on what the movement means beyond that.  I reached out to someone with more recent and relevant experience. Here are her thoughts:

Sober curious.  Curious what that means?  So was I when I first heard it.  The simplest definition that I have found is this.  “In a nutshell, identifying as sober curious means you know from experience that alcohol doesn’t make you feel great and you don’t drink it often, but you’re not willing to put an all-or-nothing label on yourself.”

I had not heard the term when I first started living it.  I love to run, and I was listening to the Spartan Up! Podcast when they had an episode with the founder of One Year No Beer.  OYNB has a simple premise – you don’t have to be an alcoholic to choose not to drink, and if you give it up for a year, you will feel amazing.

My first reaction was a properly British “pish posh,” as I was not ready to give up my nightly beer.  But given my fitness goals, I had started giving it up regularly for a short period before racing events.  I sat with the idea for a while and eventually started growing the length of time that I went without a drink.  It was amazing – I actually did feel better, despite my initial reluctance.

But then, it was time for another legal conference.  And the pressure.  Finish checking in on the first night of a conference, and where has everyone gone, to the bar of course. Walk in, and offers of drinks (or the drinks themselves) pop up left and right.

I am no teetotaler; I’m an Irish girl who loves a good strong beer.  But there is a serious issue when we have a profession that we already know is stressful, that we already know suffers widely from problem drinking and high levels of depression, then encourages and cultivates a drinking culture without any counterbalance.  The options as I see them are to participate in the ritual, stand out like a sore thumb (and make everyone think you’re an alcoholic) by publicly abstaining and drinking nothing but water, or stay home.

The pressure to make these choices starts in law school, often amid brutal peer-pressure to fit in.  My law school tenure was unique to some degree. I entered at eighteen years old and was not legal drinking age until the final semester of my third year.

The 1-L class regularly congregated at local watering holes for TGITs (thank God it’s Thursday I wanted to fit in and felt intense pressure to attend. My age was never a barrier to either my classmates or the bouncers.  Drinking culture and peer pressure don’t care about age.  It seemed that every law firm that came to court students threw a cocktail party, and every student club trying to attract members hosted an open bar.

In my experience since graduation, the Biglaw social networking culture still revolves around drinking, making it easy for summer associates to assume that everyone drinks every night. They are not too far off.

Firms love to keep associates inside the office. The firm I worked at held networking evenings with on-site alcohol (from which we were expected to return to our desks and continue working).  I remember raiding the kitchen with some other associates one ultra-late night looking for a wine bottle opener.  We drank while cite-checking a brief.

This troubling culture also extends to conferences.  The booze flows shockingly free.  I have even seen a hangover bar at morning sessions of a legal conference – complete with Emergen-C, Lifesavers, and coffee.

In attending these events, I have learned that I am not the only one with reluctance to drink.  Friends and colleagues who saw me order water often boldly started conversations with me, asking if I was pregnant or had a drinking problem (amazing what being less than sober will do to your filter when talking to professional colleagues).  Once I assured them I was neither pregnant nor an alcoholic, many opened up that drinking also made them feel awful, and they wish there were less of it in the legal culture.  Sober conversations at morning events included the same topic.

How can we begin to bring the cultural shift of the sober curious movement to our legal life?

I would like to see the growing sober curious movement start to take hole within the legal profession, offering a far better alternative – a new normal where events look much as they do now, but there is room on the menu for non-alcoholic options that take the stigma out of choosing not to drink.  Let the sober curious among us have a place at the proverbial bar.

  1. Talk about it openly. Instead of the conversation being a heavy-handed “we need to stop drinking in this profession” message that falls on deaf ears, we need to open conversations into choosing to drink little or not at all as an issue of health.  Look how easily we talk about food allergies now; no reason we cannot be talking about a choice not to drink just as openly.
  1. Remove the focus from alcohol. Events that tend to get very alcohol-heavy could be just as good with the main focus being some other aspect of them.  Clio’s Cloud Conference is a great example.  The Clio After Dark event is alcohol-heavy, but it is also a big showcase for Clio’s Reisman Awards and often for the venue that they choose to host the event.  The company really does an excellent job of encouraging attendance for reasons other than the alcohol.  Of course, attendees do manage to often take the party elsewhere across town and into the streets for lots of after-party drinking.
  1. Offer the sober curious a drink. If you have ever been the one choosing not to drink at one of these events, you probably noticed that your options were water or soda.  I don’t drink soda, so my choice is usually water.  For those consuming alcohol, there is often an extensive menu of specialty cocktails, sometimes themed to the event and sounding really enticing.  The sober curious would love comparable mocktail menu. Water gets really dull and is very obvious.
  1. Start early with sober curious events. This movement really needs to hit the law schools and law firm summer associate and new associate events.  Start making sober curious a viable option early, when currently excessive drinking is the cultural norm.
  1. Offer early morning activities that are genuinely can’t-miss. Legal conferences have gotten onboard the wellness train by offering events like group runs and yoga at hours like 6:30 or 7:00 am.  They are fantastic but sparsely attended.  If early morning events catered to the broader audience who would otherwise stay out late excessively drinking, there might be more incentive to skip the whiskey.

Given the culture around drinking and the overall societal interest in sober curious, it’s time for the legal profession to open its eyes to the possibility that maybe not everyone is looking to drink, and offer more options for those who choose to abstain.

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.