In a Post Me-Too world with gender equality under the spotlight it may appear outdated to be talking about a salutation which addresses men only, but “Dear Sir(s) is still around. Dear Sir(s) is used by legal professionals, and still considered common or standard practice by some, when addressing other lawyers or clients in formal correspondence.
In October 2020 The Law Society Ireland announced it would be discontinuing the use of this salutation. In January 2021 Scotland’s Law Society followed with a poll to find out whether its members thought it was time to drop “Dear Sir(s)”.
A majority of 66.5 voted that it should be swapped for other more appropriate forms of address.
In 2016 Megan Gray, who is now Associated Counsel at CondeNast, led a successful campaign for Freshfields to stop using this exclusionary salutation, making it the first Magic Circle firm to do so. Other firms, such as Clifford Chance and US law firm Quinn Emmanuel, have since followed suit.
While at Freshfields, Gray was working on a transaction and had changed the wording on a document to be gender neutral. It was then returned by the law firm on the other side with the salutation changed to “Dear Sirs.”
The client “couldn’t understand, especially considering the women involved in this transaction, how that would be acceptable”, she said.
This was when she realised this was something that clients really care about.
Catie Sheret, General Counsel at Cambridge University Press, was dismayed when she was repeatedly called “Dear Sir” in correspondence in 2020. This was despite her asking the sender, who was a woman, to stop using the salutation to address her.
John Watkins, the Director of Employability at The University of Law of the University Of Law, says the university does not teach students to use “Dear Sir(s)” as a salutation. The university’s advice is to rather opt for a personalised greeting whenever possible.
Watkins notes that the accepted alternative to “Dear Sir” is currently “Dear Sir/Madam”, but he says that is not necessarily inclusive enough either. For this reason the university advises students to address individuals directly by name as far as possible.
Watkins says that “there is that slight nervousness now that we might say the wrong thing and therefore we get a bit paranoid about this and we almost leave it Dear Blank, because we fear whatever goes in there.”
He also notes that the “legal profession and many other professions are wrestling with this challenge of modernising” and it is a profession steeped in tradition “like wearing wigs in court”.
“Part of the history and heritage is what makes the profession so glamorous, on the other hand if we were to say a number of things were just going to have to stay that way it will turn off those who don’t associate with it,” he says.
At Crafty Counsel we believe “Dear Sir(s)” harks back to a bygone era in which firms were mostly made of men, a more modern salutation is necessary to reflect a diverse legal profession and society.
Some alternatives suggested by the Law Society Ireland include the following:
- Dear Mr/Ms Surname,
- Dear Colleague,
- Dear ‘Position’ (managing partner, senior associate, etc),
- Dear Counsel.