Dear Sirs, It is Time to Make a Change
Imagine this scenario. A female practitioner sends a group e-mail to several members of the Bar, Judges, and a few Ministers of Parliament, both male and female. In the greeting, the female practitioner addresses all recipients with the generic greeting – “Dear Mesdames” and then proceeds to continue with the contents of said e-mail. This might garner one of the following few reactions from the male recipients – shock, offence or simply annoyance by the author’s lack of attention.
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As outdated as it sounds, I still get letters sent to me by various solicitors or organisations with the standard “Attn: Sarah-Mae Thomas, Dear Sir”. Addressing female members of the bar as Sir is both unbefitting and insensitive but it happens more than we think. I usually politely write to the lawyer in question requesting that they refer to me as either my name or by the appropriate salutation. Most of them comply, some refuse, especially in court correspondence. When I explain my frustration to fellow practitioners many say that for most, it is just a question of it being in their standard templates and that the authors mean no offence. On one hand it is understandable but inadvertent drafting should not be an excuse and other sectors seem to have caught on. Lawyers after all, are known for precise and attentive penmanship.
It may seem trivial to some but making a small change can go a long way to removing unconscious bias. Our English lessons in primary school have taught us to write letters, referencing and addressing females by her name or Madam. The reverse applies for males and presumably, if the gender of the addressee is not known, “to whom it may concern” is generally written.
I first came across this outdated conundrum when I was getting qualified to practise as a solicitor in Victoria, Australia. The year was 2013 and this issue was first brought to my attention when I was doing legal correspondence as part of my qualifying course to gain admission. Drafting we were told was guided by the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules. The rules informed us that we must be courteous in all our dealings during our legal practice. This extended to how we addressed members of the Bar in legal correspondence as well. As a matter of fact, we have been told by lecturers that in the past all women were referred to as the generic Sir. However, this is now outdated and we should be aware of ensuring that the proper salutation is used.
Historically, law firms were dominated by men. Hence, they would commonly address a fellow practitioner or a firm collectively as “Dear Sirs”. Now, there are a proportionate number of both female and male solicitors in most law firms. In fact, there are many women who are running law firms.
Since the Second World War in 1945, women internationally have been progressively entering the legal industry. Between the 1940s and 1950s, the United States of America saw a 3.5 per cent rise in women joining the legal industry.1https://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/2013/06/adams-rib-as-historical-document/ By 1980, 30 per cent of the legal industry across 52 countries were made up of women lawyers.2https://thepractice.law.harvard.edu/article/women-in-the-global-legal-profession/ This has also been true in Singapore. At present, according to statistics published by the Law Society of Singapore, there were a total of 5,955 practitioners as of August 2020. Out of this group, 2,542 were female practitioners. This translates to 42 per cent of the Singapore bar being female.3https://www.lawsociety.org.sg/news-media/statistics/ Surely, given that nearly half the bar is female, appropriate salutations should follow suit.
And this is not just about women. It is about inclusion and the legal industry catching up with prevailing cultural norms by adjusting their archaic practices. When I raised this issue with friends and colleagues in other industries, they were amazed that this was happening at all. Most of my clients applaud me for writing to law firms to request this change and to raise awareness of this issue.
What are Lawyers Around the World Saying?
In the words of Deborah Kliger, former Victoria Women Lawyers President, “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.” Sue MacGregor, an Australian lawyer said she remembered 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.4https://www.liv.asn.au/Staying-Informed/LIJ/LIJ/October-2020/Professional-conduct–Don%E2%80%99t-call-me-sir “But you can’t make that assumption anymore, especially not when there are more female law graduates than male.”
Notable law firms such as Freshfields and Clifford Chance in United Kingdom and top American law firm Emmanuel Quin Urquhart & Sullivan LLP have acknowledged the matter and made amendments to substitute “Dear Sirs” as a greeting in all their correspondences. In 2016, Freshfields banned the usage of “Dear Sirs” in all their correspondences across all the firm’s branches around the world and replaced it to a gender-neutral salutation. Additionally, Freshfields altered their salutations in correspondences in accordance with jurisdictional preferences. Their reasoning behind this change stemmed from a risk of alienation of those who do not associate with “Dear Sirs”.
Following Freshfields’s footsteps, Britain’s top law firm Clifford Chance also did away with “Dear Sirs”. Clifford Chance went a step further and removed all gender centric greetings from their letter template.
In 2020, Quinn Emmanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP recognised that collectively greeting recipients as “Dear Sirs” in correspondences regardless of their gender did not align with the modern times. The notable law firm opted to use gender neutral greetings or salutations which the recipient preferred in all the firm’s correspondences. Its Managing Director, Richard East, was also of the view that such practices should not continue and highlighted that there were now more female lawyers in the profession compared to men.5https://www.ft.com/content/c7ff22ee-4e6f-11ea-95a0-43d18ec715f5
In my recent podcast interview with Marianne Marchesi of Legalite Australia, Marianne shared similar encounters of being addressed as “Dear Sirs” or “Messrs Legalite” on legal correspondences. “Messrs” happens to be the plural form of “Mr”, and that would imply that her firm is made up of male lawyers, which is presumptuous. What stood out was when Marianne said, “if we can’t even achieve the basic level of courtesy, then we’ve got no hope when it comes to things like gender or pay equality…”.
I believe that it is now time to do away with “Dear Sirs” and have it replaced with gender-appropriate salutations. The legal industry in Singapore has certainly seen more female practitioners than before, and amongst them are senior counsels, partners, and directors of law firms. By addressing and grouping all female practitioners into a standardised template of “Dear Sirs” today is not excusable and we can do better. It is time to act upon the principles of inclusivity and gender equality by addressing both male and female professionals respectfully. The fact that the legal industry is constantly advancing alongside society, we can start by being conscious of a change like this and act accordingly with the respect that all female practitioners deserve.
The podcast episode “Let’s talk about it – Dear Sirs, it’s time to make a change” is available on The Legal Eagle Podcast.