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Writing anonymously, a partner at a top London law firm reflects on the legal profession’s relationship with alcohol

Suffice to say the interaction between lawyers and alcohol has long been a topic of humour, and concern.  One of my two favourite lawyers in literature, Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, is of course a brilliant lawyer and an alcoholic who sacrifices his life to the guillotine to save the husband of the woman he loves (the love being unrequited).

John Mortimer’s barrister caricature, Horace Rumpole, always finishes his daily grind with a bottle of Chateau Thames Embankment at Pomeroy’s Wine Bar, a loose disguise for El Vino. I haven’t been there for a while but certainly 25 years ago the customers were almost all either barristers or journalists, when ‘Fleet Street’ was actually still situated in Fleet Street.

Of humour, F E Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) allegedly on behalf of a client had an exchange with a High Court Judge in some case involving drunkenness:

F E Smith “My client was as drunk as a Judge…”

Judge (interrupting) “I believe the normal saying is “drunk as a Lord””

F E Smith (thoughtfully) “As your Lordship pleases…”

As a matter of practice when I was dealing with trainees in the days they were still called articled clerks, I used to warn them that sooner or later they would find themselves in the office a little worse for wear probably as a result of having been taken to some celebratory lunch with partners and clients.

My admonition simply was this was no time to start making those difficult phone calls that they had let pile up on their desk (and indeed now would include sending those difficult emails). Instead it was the time to go and sit in a dark corner in the library (or possibly just go home). It is interesting, when we meet again, how many of them can only remember this piece of advice from among many.

A few years ago there were a whole train of appallingly embarrassing stories of bad behaviour at major firms’ Christmas parties.  I could not help but think that part of these were due to the ban on alcohol at lunchtime in those self same firms.  This meant that partners were horribly out of training when it came around to Christmas (you cannot practice for a marathon simply by occasionally running for the bus). So possibly that diktat had misfired.

Alas, I cannot recount any stories with a clear conscience using actual names of fellow lawyers over the years who I have seen in what might be termed “a bit of a two and eight”. But I can say that both as a member of my firm’s management board, and also as its senior partner, I found out more about what was going on in the firm in the pub on a Friday evening with the trainees than I’d ever discovered previously at general partner meetings.

The writer is a partner at a leading London law firm.

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