Quietly, without fanfare, a great corporate tradition is dying. The office Christmas party, which dates back more than 50 years, has grown up to become a business risk.

As a result, business consultants say, the institution that simultaneously provided the ambitious with a proving ground and the lonely with fertile ground for romance may be headed the way of the dinosaur.

Traditional holiday office parties, where people primarily came at night to socialize and drink, are on the way out, often replaced by brunches, alcohol-free breakfasts and year-end afternoon meetings to recap corporate goals.

The changing times, which reflect public concern about drinking and the widening scope of legal liabilities for alcohol-related behavior, have encouraged many employers to put the traditional party on the shelf, said Andrew Sherwood, chairman of The Goodrich and Sherwood Co. in New York, a management consulting firm that deals with how people relate to one another.

Indeed, many companies that host parties are changing the tone and texture of the gathering, putting less emphasis on alcohol while heaping on food and entertainment, according to Harith Wickrema, owner of Harith Productions, a gala-planning firm.

"I think there is greater liability in terms of the employe who goes to the office party and kills a bunch of people on the way home or falls under a train. ... A number of things could happen that the company could be liable for," Wickrema said.

Then, too, office parties do not serve the purpose they once did, Sherwood said.

"They started right after the Depression when there was a lot of bad news going on. People didn't have money, so I think companies got together and said, 'Why don't we put on a Christmas party for people who are struggling?' "

Another purpose was to boost employe morale and productivity.

"Today, there is very little productively to be gained {by} the traditional office party," Sherwood said. "What companies are doing is having year-end parties... . They recap the year, maybe hand out some service awards, and then people go home or go shopping."

The traditional office party with free-flowing alcoholic beverages has stopped many a budding career cold, Sherwood said. Often, employes who have had too much to drink embarrass themselves in front of the boss or harass members of the opposite sex.

"People tend to cut loose at office parties and do things that they may not normally do," he said. "Their defenses are down. They may have had a couple of drinks. They have worked all day ... If you make a mistake, it is visible to everyone."

To help avoid these problems, he puts out a list of dos and don'ts for office parties.

It suggests, among other things, that the mannered guest "have fun, but keep it under control," watch how much he or she drinks, and "let someone else be the life of the party."

As for flirtations, they should be kept to a minimum, Sherwood said. He doesn't rule them out altogether because "everybody flirts a bit."

But Janice R. Bellace, an associate professor of Legal Studies and Management at the Wharton School of business in Philadelphia, suggested that office parties are breeding grounds for sexual-harassment lawsuits.

"I think that is a further reason for toning down the amount of alcohol served at parties," said Bellace, who conducts classes on corporate liability. "People's behavior becomes inappropriate at parties. Putting {employees} in a social situation and supplying them with large amounts of alcohol opens the door to sexually suggestive or offensive behaviors."

Bellace also sees the trend toward luncheon and midafternoon parties and less corporate drinking overall as a reflection of the public's concern over drinking and driving -- though legal liabilities give hosts more specific reason for concern.

"Basically speaking, the trend is to hold the host responsible for continuing to serve alcohol to guests who are noticeably intoxicated," she said. "This trend would be heightened in instances where the host is the employer and the party is a company function."