How to drink on the job
This is a conversation I have every year, at least once, with students. It happens individually; in groups; at events. It’s a topic that can be very important for law students (and attorneys and professors, too!). I feel a little silly giving the talk — I’m really not much of a drinker myself, and hardly an expert on the topic. But I do know what I’ve observed. And so I tell my students, this:
When you go to work for a law firm, you will be invited to events that involve drinking. These events can provide good networking opportunities; they can help your career; and they can be a chance to relax and have fun. However, any time work and alcohol mix, you need to be extremely cautious.
DO NOT think that the fact that it’s a party (or after-work drinks) limits your consequences. Remember, these people are not your family, and they’re not your friends. This is your employer and your co-workers. Just because it is a party — or after-work drinks — does not mean you can let your guard down. Stupid stuff that you do while drunk, in the presence of co-workers, will become part of your (unofficial) permanent record. It absolutely can affect your career.
DO NOT assume that just because other folks are drinking heavily, it’s fine for you to do the same. Other attorneys may be drinking a lot. Let them. You are a law student or a junior associate. The other attorneys may be immune from harm — they may have longstanding ties with firm partners, they may have good client relations, or otherwise be able to get away with drinking too much at the party. Or, they may be on their way out of the firm anyway, and not give a damn.
DO know your limit. Know your limit, and stay well shy of that limit.
And remember that a firm party is NOT the time to start experimenting. And it will be very tempting. You’re on a law student budget all year, with no time or money to go out. Suddenly, you’re at the firm party and it’s an open bar, with all sorts of top-shelf liquors.
Don’t do it. You’ll survive the firm party, you’ll get a paycheck, and then you can buy as much Patron or whatever else as you want. DO NOT make up for lost time at the summer associate party. The hiring partner is watching you. It’s not worth it, no matter how nice the open bar looks. The ultimate goal, remember, is to get (and keep) a job.
Another danger with experimenting at a firm event is that liquors affect different people differently. I have a friend who does fine with beer or wine, but who cannot drink tequila. DO NOT branch out to unfamiliar drinks. Stick to something you know you can handle. A firm party is a very bad time to discover your particular Achilles heel.
DRINK SLOWLY. Really, it’s not that hard, just sit and nurse your gin-and-tonic for an hour, as you make small talk. DO NOT start competing with anyone. DO NOT start doing shots. DO NOT get involved in any sort of drinking games. Seriously, this is real life, not sophomore year. Just get your drink, and slowly sip it, and nod in conversation. And for Heaven’s sakes, eat something. Nibble on some hors d’oeuvres. This will make it slightly less likely that you’ll end up doing something stupid.
Remember, this is the era of Facebook. And it’s also the era of Above the Law. Anything stupid that you do won’t just be the punchline of jokes around the office for the next several months or years; it will also be on the internet. If you have too many margaritas and end up jumping into the fountain, it will be on Above the Law the next day. (Yes, it will be slightly sanitized to “a male associate at a Los Angeles firm” — but your classmates, friends, many possible future employers, will all know that it’s you.)
Use good judgment. You be the level-headed one; let the other guys be the stupid ones. (Above the Law’s Summer Associate tag gives numerous illustrations of this principle.)
And, a special (somewhat lengthy) note for women:
I hate to possibly sound sexist, but I think it’s important to be frank about this: Women can be uniquely vulnerable in drinking situations. If you’re a woman, some male attorneys will probably try to get you drunk in order to hook up with you. (Obviously, this can happen outside of the male-female context, but from my observation it happens overwhelmingly in the context of male attorneys plying females with alcohol.) Not that all hook-ups are unwelcome — you decide that. But it’s very problematic if someone who you don’t want to hook up with uses alcohol to obtain some kind of pseudo-consent.
These kinds of hook-ups can be physically unsafe. They can have humiliating emotional fallout. And to top it all off, they can have gendered effects on your career — despite decades of feminism, it can still be a “good girls don’t” world at many firms, where women will be judged more harshly than men for the same actions. Even worse, your drinking may be used to (wrongly) blame you for any abuse, or to excuse your abusers.
In warning about this possibility, I do NOT mean to endorse these double standards. And I do NOT mean to say that women who drink invite abuse, or any other such nonsense. The fault for abuse rests with the perpetrator. Sex without real consent is rape, and alcohol doesn’t change that. If you’re a victim of sexual abuse, you have certain responses available, including civil or criminal law. But it’s best to avoid the problem altogether. Remember that there’s trouble out there, and that you should have all your wits about you to avoid it. Hopefully, you already figured this kind of thing out earlier (such as in college), and have an idea of how to take care of yourself.
Even female associates who stay relatively sober also need to be wary of drunk senior associates and partners at these events. In other words, even if you do see this as a professional event, others might not, so be careful to avoid uncomfortable situations (e.g. find a female “buddy” and stick with her all night or keep an eye on each other to minimize the risk of finding yourself alone with a drunk senior male colleague, avoid sharing a cab ride home solo with same).
I hate to say that women need to be more careful than men– it’s not really fair, and it’s yet another inequality for women who already face an uneven playing field. It’s especially unfair since women are often de-facto excluded from many other firm networking opportunities (like golf), so female associates may feel they have to go out for drinks, in order to network effectively. But women do need to realize that there are likely to be at least some predatory attorneys at any large firm — there shouldn’t be, but there will be — and that those attorneys tend to focus on women. And on the flip side, male attorneys: Get it through your heads that no means no, and that sex (or any hooking up) without consent is a crime. Using alcohol to “get around” a lack of consent is morally wrong and is illegal (though deeply underprosecuted); it can get you fired or sued or both. And saying “I just had too much to drink” is not an excuse.
Well, I hope this wasn’t too depressing of a discussion. I don’t want to give the impression that all law-firm drinking is terrible. I know lots of attorneys and law students who drink responsibly. For many young attorneys, going out for drinks is a very effective way to network. Firm events can be very good networking opportunities, too. And these can also be a way to relax and have fun. They certainly have their upsides. But they’re not without risks. And that’s why you should always remember, law student, to be extra careful any time that you drink with colleagues.