I recently had an email exchange where another solicitor insisted on addressing me as “Sir”, even after I politely requested they not do so writes Marianne Marchesi.
It is amazingly only one example of the multiple times that I have been addressed as a male during my career. Even my firm has previously been addressed as “Messrs Legalite”, which, as a brand name and not a surname, is nonsensical. Imagine addressing a corporation like Apple as “Messrs Apple”. Imagine addressing correspondence to a male as “Dear Madam”. Or even assuming that because a firm is a company, it must be owned by females. These all sound ridiculous, because they are.
I shared the above exchange in a women’s legal group, and had hundreds of comments from female lawyers sharing their own experiences of being addressed as “Sirs”. Many people may think that our outrage at being referred to as “Sirs” is perhaps exaggerated. Some even see women’s groups or female-focused awards as somehow discriminatory against men.
But these take nothing away from men, and are a small step in the right direction of levelling the playing field. When women must fight tooth and nail just for basic courtesy, can you only imagine all the other battles we must fight on a day-to-day basis? Things like pay equality, sexual harassment, being belittled during negotiations, spoken over, mansplained, being asked to do the coffee run, ignored in meetings, and the list goes on and on.
And this is not just about women. It’s about accessibility. It’s about inclusion. It’s about the legal industry catching up, once and for all, and giving up on archaic practices. When I raised this issue with friends and colleagues in other industries, they were amazed that it was happening at all.
In a publication by the Queensland Law Society, ethics solicitor, Shane Budden, recently stated that it was also about focusing on achieving client outcomes:
“Adopting communication practices which increase friction rather than promote courteous engagement is both counterproductive and unethical,” he said.
In my example above, this was certainly true. The exchange distracted me from the client matter, and so I decided to stop engaging on the issue and let them have the last word, however wrong it was.
As lawyers, we are entrusted by our clients to represent their best interests and strive to ensure that we get the best possible outcomes for them. Petty spats such as the above, or even sloppiness in how we address our fellow practitioners, sabotages this.
Addressing women as “Sirs” is a perfect example of how undermining women has been normalised in society, and how male privilege is so entrenched that you simply could not fathom a woman insisting on addressing a man as “Madam”.
It beggars belief that basic courtesy is a battle we still need to fight as we head in to 2020. So, while we’re fighting our other battles, stop addressing us as “Sirs”. Perhaps just use our name.
Marianne Marchesi is the principal lawyer at Legalite.