Time for lawyers to dump the ‘Dear Sir/s’ greeting?
A recent article in LawyersWeekly from Jerome Doraisamy put the obvious to the legal audience, noting that ‘women are not a niche cohort’.
Is it time for lawyers to take that message to heart? He notes that there is a wildfire response to comments about the use of the greeting, in equal parts empathy and frustration at its continued use.
Legalite founder and winner of the Partner of the Year (SME) category at the 2019 Women in Law Awards, Marianne Marchesi – who just over one year ago wrote about this issue – said that receiving correspondence that starts with “Dear Sirs” makes women lawyers feel ignored and irrelevant.
“I have had letters addressed to my firm in this way, of which I am the sole director and shareholder, and sometimes feel like returning to sender as there are no ‘sirs’ in my company. There is also the implication or assumption that the firm should be owned by a male, which undermines my position and hard work getting here,” she explained.
“The practice of using gendered language, and assuming a male identity as the default, is no longer appropriate when the profession is now proudly occupied by women who in some cases, such as law students, make up the majority,” she said.
“The times have changed, and so must our language. I can’t believe that we are having this conversation in 2021, but the standard you walk past is the standard you accept, and we can no longer just ignore this. If nothing changes, nothing changes.”
Who Still Uses ‘Dear Sir’?
Many lawyers, it would appear.
“Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Using a person’s preferred gender pronouns, or a gender-neutral alternative such as ‘To Whom It May Concern’ is not a meaningless exercise in identity politics or ‘PC culture’, it is an acknowledgement of a person’s actual identity and a sign of respect and inclusion,” she argued.
Law Squared founder Demetrio Zema is particularly passionate about this “absolutely common” issue, and looks to ensure progression on all fronts within his firm – including in the removal of hierarchical titles.
“‘Dear Sirs’ takes the assumption that the recipient is a male, and again, fails to give regard for the actual recipient,” he noted.
Legalite associate Lauren Kelindeman, who last year won the Wellness Advocate of the Year at the Australian Law Awards, said that she gets letters addressed to “Dear Sirs” or “Messrs Legalite” on a monthly basis.
“I started screenshotting and putting them into a collage to show how often it happens! What impact does it have on women? Personally, it makes me feel degraded and that I don’t belong in a law firm or shouldn’t be a lawyer because I am not a ‘sir’,” said Kelindeman, who has spoken previously about the need for greater individual responsibility in creating a better legal profession.
“These are sent by people who know Legalite’s founder is a woman and know my name but purposefully choose not to address me by it and instead refer to me as a man,” she said.
Denning Insurance Law principal and College of Law adjunct lecturer Kate Denning, who was admitted to practice nearly 20 years ago, said that such salutations are less frequent now than when she entered the profession, but they are still used too often – together with “lots of unhelpful gendered insults”.
“I can’t help but think that, for some lawyers, resorting to this conduct is a form of regression, or a crutch they use when the law or the facts aren’t on their side. Perhaps it is behaviour learned from supervisors they had as early career lawyers. Whatever the explanation, there is no excuse for it,” she proclaimed.
“Of course, sometimes ‘Dear Sirs’ might be inadvertently added to a letter and sent out without detection by the writer. But a recipient is not to know and should not be required to discern whether the salutation was a typo, a system precedent or deliberate.
“Too regularly, I read posts by female practitioners in online groups, debating how one of them should best respond to an unsolicited ‘Dear Sir’-ing. Should they ‘Dear Madam’ the lawyer back? Should they ignore it? What would their client think if they spoke out?”
The occurrence of a “Dear Sirs” salutation occurs often in the precedent templates of law firms and businesses, the interviewees said. Using such a greeting in a precedent template, Zema suggested, is, “to be frank, lazy law”.
“Taking a moment to identify the correct recipient of the correspondence is not only common decency it is also the right thing to do. Whether it is ‘Dear Sirs’ or ‘Messers (Insert Law firm)’, let’s move away from very formal and non-personal correspondence,” he said.
Precedent letters, Page said, should be like other letters: personal.
“You are putting your name and that of your firm with each and every communication out, and they should be consistent with that. The more personal the communication, the more powerful it is. Names matter,” he says.
“To say ‘Dear Sirs’ when the letter may be addressed to a woman for example is anachronistic and has been ever since I have practised law (30+ years). If you want to be seen as out of touch dinosaurs who are firmly wedded to the 19th century, keep writing ‘Dear Sirs’.”
It shows, Lauren Kelindeman said, “how the legal industry is lagging decades behind the rest of society when it comes to social change, gender equality and inclusiveness”.
There is a fundamental ethical duty, Denning pointed out, for lawyers to be “courteous in all dealings in the course of legal practice”.
“The use of a gender specific salutation (whether intentional or inadvertent) is likely to be viewed by the recipient as outdated or inflammatory. At worst, such language may result in a complaint to the practitioner’s regulatory body and, on one view, may be a contravention of Rule 42 of the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules,” she said.
“We are capable of understanding and explaining the perspectives of others. It’s part of our job. So, it’s not beyond us to understand that non-inclusive language like ‘Dear Sirs’ may be offensive to our female colleagues, including those in our workplaces.”
It seems clear that legal leads need to set the example by making changes and providing appropriate training regarding the language usage and gender equality generally.
The Law Society in any jurisdiction need to play a role here also.
The end of “Dear Sirs” as a salutation, “just one small way that our profession can be more inclusive and help all of us get on with the job of assisting our clients navigate a legal process”, Ms Denning said.
“It signals to practitioners that the use of gendered language as a weapon against an opponent is unacceptable. Law should be a leader – particularly when it comes to the use of language,” she said.
“However, I’d also say that removing language like this from our dialogues is both easy and within the scope of our professional obligations (to one another) to do. The little things matter and are often an important precursor to larger, more systemic changes,” she posited.
In anticipation of responses from those legal professionals who might not see this issue as an urgent or even important conversation, Marchesi (left)says that “the beauty of humans is that we have the capacity to care about more than one issue at a time”.
“Whilst this may seem like a non-issue compared to other issues, there is also the domino effect of this kind of behaviour that needs to be considered. For example, not addressing someone by how they wish to be identified can have the effect of minimising them,” she said.
“This, in turn, suggests that their position, opinions, or role in the legal profession is unimportant. For women, it is simply another way of ignoring them or pushing them to one side – behaviour which also means women can get sidelined for promotions or miss out on equal pay.”
Lauren Kelindeman agrees strong: “If it is a non-issue for you, it should be a small sacrifice to make that will have a big impact on women! Gender equality is a huge social issue that can’t be ignored because of ‘tradition’. It is time law firms catch up with the rest of the corporate world.”
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