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Professional conduct: Don’t call me sir

Professional conduct: Don’t call me sir

By Karin Derkley

Practice Management 


Addressing women lawyers as ‘Dear Sir’ is unprofessional but it happens more than you might think.

How to address lawyers
  • If you know the name of the lawyer, use their full name, ie, Dear Jane Smith or Ms Smith. 
  • If you don’t know the lawyer’s name, use Dear Counsel or Dear Colleague or Dear Practitioner.

Melbourne lawyer Carol Grimshaw has lost count of the times she has received correspondence addressed “Dear Sir”, even from people she has discussed matters with – in person – and know her by name. 

It may seem trivial, she says. “But it’s unprofessional conduct and it makes you feel annoyed and invisible.” 

Ms Grimshaw is not alone. How correspondence is addressed is a popular discussion topic on LinkedIn and the Facebook group Ladies who Lawyer, where participants say they find the practice of addressing correspondence to Dear Sir demeaning and disrespectful. 

Family lawyer Sue MacGregor says she finds it insulting that correspondence to her small all female firm is still regularly addressed as Dear Sir. “I’ve got a pretty obvious female name so it really is amazing the number of people who still call you Dear Sir.”

She will occasionally, “when I'm feeling cheeky”, refer back to a male lawyer who has addressed her with Dear Sir, as Dear Madam. “It's no more cheeky or rude than them assuming I’m a man.”

Legalite founder and principal Marianne Marchesi says she and her female colleagues regularly receive letters or emails addressed to Dear Sir. “I don't have any male partners here so it’s just not appropriate to address us as Dear Sir. 

“It makes us feel invisible and disrespected,” she says. “When I have asked not to be called Sir and they insist on it, it is quite infuriating because there’s no logic behind it.”

Late last year a particularly annoying Dear Sir correspondence with a law firm motivated Ms Marchesi to write an article outlining her frustration at the practice. It prompted dozens of comments from equally frustrated female lawyers. 

It also elicited comments from some who argued that correspondence is addressed not to an individual lawyer but to the law firm, which is apparently regarded as a male entity. 

“That tradition comes from a time when women didn’t lead companies. But the world has changed,” Ms Marchesi points out.

Victorian Women Lawyers president Deborah Kliger says the use of Dear Sirs to address fellow practitioners is outdated and isolates and belittles lawyers who do not identify as male and devalues their work. “Dear Sirs connotes the outdated practice of assigning substantive legal work to male lawyers, leaving administrative tasks to female lawyers. We are now in a time where women lawyers make up a substantial proportion of the profession. Women are increasingly reaching senior ranks in the profession, from partnership to starting their own firms.”

Ms MacGregor says she remembers a time when women were rare enough in the profession that the default Dear Sir might have been justified or at least able to be explained. “But you can't make that assumption any more, especially not when there are more female law graduates than male.”

“You can no longer have Dear Sir as the default. It’s just not justified any longer.”

Lawyers need to keep up to date with community expectations, Ms Grimshaw says. “Women lawyers have been around in Victoria for a long while now. And it’s clear that gender equality is expected in our community across a range of areas.

“When it comes to correspondence we’re required to be professional and courteous,” she says. “I find it’s discourteous to refer to me as something that I’m not and to erase my gender and my experience.”

Law Squared director Demetrio Zema says addressing female lawyers as Dear Sir is “just lazy and unprofessional”. He recently posted a LinkedIn post about correspondence being addressed to him instead of to the female lawyers handling a matter. “The other party repeatedly ignored my request to address future correspondence to the lawyer handling the matter.”

He was disheartened to hear one of his female lawyers say she had experienced it so often she was used to it. The string of comments on his post confirms how prevalent the practice is. 

“Clearly this has been a common trend and one that has been deemed acceptable for the purpose of getting the job done. But as the leader of this firm I think it's important to call it out as behaviour I’m not prepared to accept," Mr Zema says.

“It's petty and childish. It’s treating women as inferior and unable to make decisions, as not fully part of the legal profession, as not even worthy of being included in correspondence.

“Take the time and the effort to direct correspondence to the person to whom it should rightfully be directed.”

To Ms Marchesi such practices are part of a bigger picture of how women are treated in the workplace and the legal profession. 

“If we can't even have basic respect or basic courtesy, how can we expect to have the more important, more significant courtesy and respect – like feeling safe at work and not having sexual harassment, or being able to have a personal or family life and work life without being penalised or criticised?

“If we can’t even get that right then it just makes all the other stuff even harder.”

Given one of the key skills for any lawyer is attention to detail, it is “baffling” to see lawyers using a blanket gendered term to refer to their professional peers, Ms Kliger says. “Dear Sirs” also fails to acknowledge non-binary lawyers, she points out. “It lacks basic professional courtesy.”

Ms Marchesi believes legal services regulators and law societies could play a role in specifying that such behaviour is not appropriate. “There are regulations in our professional conduct rules about acting in a respectful, courteous manner towards other practitioners and I think that would apply in this instance.

“It would help if it is at least in black and white guidelines that this is not acceptable.”

College of Law director and foundation director of the Australian Gender Equality Council Ann-Maree David says making the effort to address correspondence in a gender neutral way is an ethical duty as well as good business sense.

“Both the profession and community are becoming much more diverse, and we should be considering in terms of good business sense how our clients want us to address them.” That includes non-binary salutations as well, she says.

“At the College of Law our training in legal writing and drafting starts from the basis of the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules which tell us we have to be courteous in all our dealings in the course of our legal practice. That extends to how we reference members of the profession and our clients.” 

Parliamentary counsel has for years been using gender neutral language when drafting legislation, she says. “There's plenty of precedent out there to show that it is easy to redraft sentences so you don't have to use pronouns so it becomes totally gender neutral.”

LIV president Sam Pandya says sending correspondence to lawyers addressed “Dear Sirs” is outdated and “potentially offensive”. 

“The legal profession now has more female than male practitioners,” he says. “So it is also inaccurate to ignore female lawyers. I think it appears lazy or rude. And I encourage all lawyers to be careful and respectful in correspondence.

There are plenty of acceptable alternatives, such as “dear colleagues” and “dear practitioners”, he says. “If any firms are relying on pre-populated precedents with forms of address, now is the time to update them.” ■

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