‘Dear Sirs’: An outdated, archaic approach?
Women are not a niche cohort – or even a minority – of the legal profession, and according to numerous practitioners, the language used in precedent documentation and external correspondence must better reflect this.
Every now and then, LinkedIn news feeds of Australian legal professionals are drawn to posts from female lawyers recalling receipt of correspondence from an opposing party, or external provider, that opens with the greeting, “Dear Sir/s”.
Such posts – at least from the anecdotal experience of this writer – almost always catch on like wildfire, with colleagues and friends across the legal community responding with their own stories of such correspondence, together with equal parts empathy and frustration at the continued use of this form of greeting.
Legalite founder and principal, 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.
Use of such a greeting, Megaport senior legal counsel Melissa Scott outlined, is a “relic” of a time when women and those identifying as female were, at best, not a big cohort within the legal community and, at worst, not welcome within it – or any other vocational path outside of the homestead.
“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.”
How common is the problem?
Such greetings in official correspondence are, Ms Scott detailed, “more common than you would expect”.
“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 Ms 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.
Page Provan director Stephen Page, who in November of last year spoke to Lawyers Weekly about the need for the profession to continue fighting for fairness for LGBTQI practitioners, said that he sees the “Dear Sirs” greeting used from time to time, and that it “needs to stop”.
“To assume the gender of the person being written to is insulting. Female and non-binary colleagues remain colleagues, and should be treated as such,” he posited.
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?”
Precedent templates and correspondence
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, Mr 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, Mr 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 argued.
“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’.”
Part of the issue, Ms Marchesi mused, is a potential belief by some that the “proper way” to address a law firm or business is to use ‘Dear Sirs’ – “whether or not there are female directors and owners”, she said.
It shows, Ms Kelindeman said in support, “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, Ms 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 submitted.
“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.”
The role of leaders
There are numerous steps that partners and business owners can and must take – starting, Ms Kelindeman detailed, with the removal of “Dear Sirs” from the style guide and all requisite precedent documentation. Moreover, she said, there should be a firm-wide communication advising that outdated salutations are to be replaced by alternatives like “Dear Colleague/s”.
It is critical that leaders set a positive example by way of making these changes and others, Ms Marchesi stressed, for example, calling out such behaviour and providing training on related issues such as discrimination and gender equality.
“Change will not happen if we continue to accept behaviour that is simply unacceptable, and often, junior lawyers will feel more comfortable in calling out the same behaviour if they know they have their partner’s full support,” she said.
Mr Zema acknowledged his own role in this, saying leaders’ duties extend to “circumstances that seek to circumvent or bypass not only female lawyers but junior lawyers too”.
“I have called out circumstances where a senior lawyer fails to address the lawyer responsible for the matter and actively omits them from correspondence or direct conversations,” he recalled.
Australia’s law societies, professional and educational bodies, Ms Denning added, have a role to play in ensuring lawyers are kept informed of current professional courtesies. But, she noted, “the buck has to stop with law firm partners and in-house managers”.
“These lawyers supervise matters and sign correspondence. They authorise individual lawyers to send out letters without a supervisor’s sign off. They approve the precedents. [Changing such precedents] is surely achievable. If not, then I expect manual amendments can be made,” she said.
The effect of changes to documentation and communication
The end of “Dear Sirs” as a salutation, Ms Denning hypothesised, is “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”.
“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 surmised.
The evolution of language use in law, Ms Marchesi said, would “force writers to actively consider who they are addressing letters to and reduce the risk of mistakes happening”.
“It also helps change the ‘male’ language that seems to be entrenched in the legal profession. There are many other, more cordial ways to address people, such as by their name or as ‘colleagues’,” she said.
Precedent templates, Mr Zema said, must “actively” acknowledge and respect the recipient: “It will avoid unnecessary and, at times, passive-aggressive behaviour, and furthermore will increase comradery among practitioners.”
In other words, Ms Kelindeman said, it will “bring the legal profession into the 21st century!”
Cribbing from former US president Thomas Jefferson, Mr Page espoused that it is a self-evident truth that all of us have been created equal: “It is long overdue for precedent letters to recognise this.”
Why such changes matter
Lawyers, Ms Scott suggested, “trade in the mastery of language and communication”, and by virtue of this, are fully aware that words matter.
“How can we truly say we want an inclusive profession for all and then use language that is gendered in a way that excludes half of its members? It’s nonsensical, inconsistent with modern practice and requires so very little effort to fix. Of course, mistakes happen but when we know better, we can do better,” she deduced.
Near enough, Mr Page said in support, is not good enough: “Our profession strives for excellence. We should never strive to be second best. Reputation matters. If you want to be stuck in the dark ages, and have your practice wither and die – don’t change.”
Against the backdrop of other scourges of the profession, such as workplace sexual harassment and the under-representation of women at senior levels, Ms Denning mused that outdated salutations may come across as a lesser issue.
“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, Ms Marchesi pointed out 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.”
Ms Kelindeman was more direct: “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.”
For Mr Zema, salutations like “Dear Sirs” are not mistakes, they are symbolic of “lazy law”.
“Taking a moment to identify the correct recipient and addressing correspondence correctly is common decency and should be common practice,” he said.
This applies broadly, Ms Denning said in support, noting she would be pleased if “male lawyers would spare their female counterparts (including their tone and approach) from gendered descriptions like ‘shrill’, ‘difficult’, ‘irrational’ or ‘shouty’”.
“I can’t recall ever hearing a male lawyer described as ‘shrill’ or being called, *gasp* ‘girly’ in a condescending tone. If a lawyer must use a word to describe a particular practitioner (though this is rarely a good idea) it’d be wise to consider whether the same word would be appropriate, irrespective of the recipient’s gender, age or race,” she said.
These changes – both to precedent templates and other forms of communication by the firm or business – cost little time, but will ultimately “benefit an entire generation of early career lawyers and students who will no longer have to receive correspondence that at best is a lazy mistake and at worst, reminds them that the legal profession was once not for them and that they were actively discouraged from participating and succeeding in it”, Ms Scott concluded.
“Women are not a niche, a minority or a novelty in the profession. Our language must reflect this.”