CIArb Features

Is it time to call last orders?

07 Feb 2024

There’s a big drinking culture in international arbitration. But what if you do not or cannot consume alcohol? Dr Kabir Duggal C.Arb FCIArb and Amanda J. Lee FCIArb look at the alternatives.

Political pollsters seeking to measure candidate popularity often ask what is known as ‘the beer question’: with which candidate would you rather have a beer? The answer is regarded as a barometer of likeability, authenticity, and collegiality. As such, the beer question continues to be posed in the hiring context.

Alcohol is both a crutch on which the arbitration community leans and the common thread and social lubricant used by many to facilitate the formation of professional connections. In the bar, at the golf course or après ski, bonds are frequently forged over beer or cocktails. And except for breakfast briefings, it is rare to find an arbitration event in the West that is alcohol‑free. It is also customary for arbitration weeks to begin with a kick‑off cocktail reception.

This emphasis on drinking culture in international arbitration – a field that places a high premium on the importance of networking and visibility – is therefore a potential barrier for those who abstain from alcohol (on which more later). Meanwhile, two studies suggest that drinking is often embraced by lawyers as a potential solution to mental health challenges. A 1990 study of 1,200 lawyers conducted by Benjamin et al revealed that 18% of those surveyed engaged in problematic drinking. This figure exceeded problematic drinking rates for the wider population, a finding that was mirrored by a 2019 study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) with the assistance of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which concluded that: “attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise generally consistent with alcohol use disorders at a rate much higher than other populations”.

Of the respondents to the ABA’s survey, 22.6% reported problematic use of alcohol or other substances at some stage of their life, with 20.6% achieving scores consistent with problematic drinking. Notably, 36.4% – more than a third – achieved scores consistent with hazardous drinking indicative of possible abuse or dependency. Although research published by the International Bar Association in 2021 indicates that only 10% of lawyers resort to alcohol as a coping mechanism to manage their mental health, that survey acknowledges the role of social desirability bias in such outcome. This statistic is significant when contrasted with previous studies.

Drinking culture versus diversity in arbitration

Alcohol both unites and divides. While there is nothing wrong with the responsible consumption of alcohol per se and the authors do not intend to demonise those who choose to drink, the clear potential for the pervasive nature of drinking culture in international arbitration to undermine the cause of diversity is noteworthy. Mindful of the international nature of the field, it is incumbent on responsible community stakeholders to take pragmatic steps to address the adverse implications of drinking culture in the field.

There are many reasons why members of the arbitration community may choose not to drink. All are valid. Colleagues may temporarily abstain from alcohol consumption due to pregnancy, fertility treatment or while breast‑feeding. Those receiving treatment with antibiotics are encouraged to refrain from drinking alcohol to avoid adverse reactions. Whether abstinence is a cause for celebration or sympathy, the decision to disclose any aspect of one’s medical history is sensitive and may have significant career implications.

The consumption of medication to facilitate the management of long‑term or chronic medical conditions, such as ADHD, angina, anxiety, arthritis, depression, diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, psychosis, and other conditions, whether physical or mental, may also preclude drinking. Practitioners who are dealing with mental health challenges or managing conditions brought on by chronic stress may be reluctant to disclose why they are not drinking for fear of stigma. Those in recovery from alcohol‑use disorder or with a family history of addiction may choose to responsibly exclude themselves from events at which alcohol is being consumed.

For those who do not drink, every alcohol‑fuelled networking event may give rise to awkward questions. By choosing to prioritise health and wellbeing, take steps to properly manage medical conditions or otherwise exercise personal choice, individuals may miss out on potential opportunities to connect with peers, benefit from career advancement and be fully embraced as members of the arbitration community if they do not attend.

Mindful that arbitration is an international field, cultural and religious considerations merit particular attention. The consumption of alcohol is condemned or prohibited by numerous religions, including Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Mormonism and Sikhism. Those who do not drink alcohol for religious reasons may find themselves marginalised at events, particularly in the West, or effectively excluded from or made to feel uncomfortable at team building, networking or other professional opportunities because of edicts of their faith.

Research has identified a rising tide of sober curiosity. Data collected by Drinkaware in the UK and Gallup in the US is indicative of a shift in attitude by Gen Z and Millennials, with those under the age of 35 statistically less likely to drink alcohol than their older peers. As time passes and the needs and expectations of arbitration practitioners change, arbitration networking culture is likely to evolve, but any such evolution will be slow.

There is accordingly significant potential for the existing emphasis on alcohol‑fuelled networking to have a disproportionately negative impact on practitioners who come from numerous underrepresented groups. Alcohol‑based networking is unavoidably less inclusive of and attractive to pregnant or nursing practitioners, sober curious younger (or more senior) colleagues, those who are practising members of numerous faiths and those managing certain disabilities and health challenges. And not just because such events are routinely accompanied by a glass of warm orange juice served from a carton.

Best practices for inclusive event planning

Mindful of the key role played by networking in achieving success and visibility in the profession, the arbitration community can and must do a better job of developing inclusive networking practices. As demonstrated by the ‘Stress, Drink, Leave’ research supported by the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar, permissive attitudes towards alcohol in the workplace are associated with risky drinking. Proactive leadership is accordingly required if attitudes are to change. Members of the arbitration community wishing to promote inclusive behaviour at arbitration events, and to better support and accommodate non‑drinkers, should keep the following in mind:

  • Plan a variety of events to better cater for potential delegates. Breakfast seminars, coffee mornings, garden parties, barbecues (with vegetarian and vegan options available), networking walks and hikes, and evening events that offer refreshments, but which are alcohol‑free, are welcome and inclusive alternatives to cocktail receptions and wine tastings.
  • Prioritise shared experiences. Hold an arbitration‑themed quiz to encourage healthy competition, organise a competitive debate to identify talented speakers or arrange speed‑networking or mentoring to give delegates an excuse to connect over points of substance rather than a glass of Pinot Grigio.
  • Offer appealing non‑alcoholic beverages to delegates at all arbitration events. Non‑alcoholic cocktails, cordials and non‑citrus juices, alongside still and sparkling water, are a welcome alternative to carbonated and caffeinated beverages that are high in sugar, and citrus juices, which may cause stomach problems.
  • Make sure that non‑alcoholic beverages are as accessible to delegates as alcoholic beverages. Prominence is typically given to alcoholic beverages, which are routinely offered to delegates on trays as they enter event spaces. Do not hide water and non‑alcoholic beverages at the back of the room where they may be difficult to reach.
  • Be sensitive to non‑drinkers. The decision to abstain is a private one and should not be the subject of speculation or interrogation.
  • When organising and attending business dinners, do not expect non‑drinkers, particularly those who are funding hospitality personally rather than drawing on the deep pockets of Big Law, to take equal financial responsibility for the alcohol consumption of those who choose to drink.
  • Cater for different tastes at arbitration events. While no one can reasonably expect every preference to be accommodated, it is important to recognise that beverage and dietary preferences are as diverse as the arbitration community.
  • Avoid holding alcohol‑themed competitions and giveaways at arbitration events. More inclusive prizes include vouchers, gadgets, books or small gifts other than food or drink.
  • Ensure that team networking events, particularly those organised to give aspiring practitioners the opportunity to impress, are not alcohol‑based. Provide opportunities to connect and learn from colleagues in alcohol‑free environments to avoid excluding or ‘othering’ team members.


By being more mindful when planning events, the arbitration community can help to ensure that those who do not drink do not have to choose between awkward participation and exclusion from valuable opportunities to build their professional networks, identify mentors and develop professional opportunities. After all, it is ‘the 4am question’ that really counts in international arbitration: with which candidate would you rather be stuck in the office at 4am on the day of a filing?

Dr Kabir Duggal C.Arb FCIArb is an Attorney at Arnold & Porter, focusing on international arbitration and public international law matters. In June 2023, he delivered the Roebuck Lecture on ‘International Arbitration Versus Human Rights, Armed Conflict and the Environment: Why should I care?’.

Amanda J. Lee FCIArb is an Arbitrator and Consultant at Costigan King, London. She is the Founder of Careers in Arbitration and ARBalance.

This article was first published in Ciarb’s Resolver magazine, Autumn 2023.