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When Caplin & Drysdale founder Mortimer Caplin turned 100 last summer, he recalled his early years as a lawyer, and how his colleagues enjoyed liquor in the office each evening. He liked the tradition, so he kept bourbon and soda behind a globe on a shelf in his own Washington, D.C., office. “I wanted it to be a special place,” he said.

Caplin’s office happy hours ended years ago, like end-of-day cocktails in most professional offices. But a culture of work-related drinking persists in many places in Big Law—and that can cause problems in a profession that is especially prone to alcoholism.

The legal industry is well aware of the alarming statistics: One-third of attorneys drink too much, with a significant percentage acknowledging they have a problem.

Still, bottles of liquor are often displayed in rainmakers’ and managing partners’ offices, and firms regularly underwrite firm-hosted happy hours and alcohol-fueled parties for everyone from summer associates to new laterals.

The issue of addiction in the profession has bubbled up several times this month, including after ProPublica published a story describing an allegedly wild holiday party hosted by Kasowitz Benson Torres. (A spokesman for name partner Marc Kasowitz has strongly and repeatedly denied the story’s suggestion that Kasowitz struggled with alcoholism. A spokesman for the firm also noted that ProPublica relied on unnamed sources and said the firm had given ProPublica eight statements by firm employees who contested the story’s assertions.)

Another story in The New York Times detailed the extent of addiction in the legal profession as it recounted the overdose death of a Wilson Sonsini Goodrich partner. “I firmly believe that law-firm culture, particularly at big firms, has to become more compassionate and more aware of the signs that one of their own is struggling,” the author wrote.

‘A release valve’

On a Twitter conversation after the Times story, several lawyers chimed in to discuss how heavy drinking is sometimes enabled by law firms. They described how alcohol flows at weekly happy hours, barbecues, even firm softball games.

Some events, like group spinning classes, kayaking and hiking trips, don’t involve booze, though many more events do.

“There is not a law firm function that happens without alcohol,” said Link Christin, a former attorney who now heads Caron Treatment Centers’ addiction recovery program for legal professionals. “When you have these events, they essentially put the seal of approval on drinking. And there’s sort of an expectation you’re going to be drinking.”

The examples are easy to find: Litigation groups frequently bring in dinner and drinks so they can work late. Others mark the end of the week by summoning bottles or a bartender to the firm premises.

Telecommunications boutique Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis signals the close of the week by ringing a gong to start its happy hour, Washingtonian Magazine noted in its “50 Great Places to Work in Washington” list this year. Arnold & Porter has long had a bar as a feature in the office.

The drinking culture at then-Patton Boggs, encouraged during a weekly cocktail hour, once led to a $12 million sexual harassment civil suit against the firm in 2013. (The employee who alleged the harassment ultimately dropped the suit.)

Then there are summer associate programs, which can function like one long fraternity party for entertaining law school recruits. Don’t get drunk, warns nearly every how-to guide for summer associate. Yet some events for summers revolve around drinking. Covington & Burling, for instance, has listed wine and whiskey tastings among the social events on its summer associates’ program recruiting page.

In theory, alcohol and parties function as rewards for hard-working lawyers. The most successful lawyers often give up their social lives, or incorporate entertainment into business, such as when drinking with clients.

“It’s presented as a release valve. You’ve been working really hard, so here’s the license. It’s free and officially sanctioned,” said Will Meyerhofer, a psychotherapist in Manhattan who formerly worked as a Sullivan & Cromwell associate.

“One nice thing about drinking is saying you’re unavailable—because you’re drunk,” Meyerhofer added.

While law firms may play a part in the problem, they can also help. Addiction recovery specialists suggest that firms with concerns about problem drinking can ask the Lawyer Assistance Program associated with their local bar association for advice and an intervention.

Christin from Caron Treatment Centers said firms can also rework their drug, alcohol and crisis protocols and offer training to staff and partners.

And they can eliminate alcohol from some firm activities.

“One thing I would ask them to look at is including a lot of nonalcoholic, tasty beverages at their gatherings. Mocktails, anything that doesn’t have alcohol in it. It would be refreshing to do that,” said Denise Perme, manager of the D.C. Bar’s lawyer assistance program.

Katelyn Polantz is based in Washington, D.C., and writes about government and the business of law. She can be reached at kpolantz@alm.com. On Twitter: @kpolantz.

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