"Dear Sirs" - really?

Trainee Solicitor Beth Reid thought it was time for change as she explained to her colleagues this week - but would the Board of Partners agree?

This year has taught me that it is not enough to be complacent to change, but to be at the forefront of the facilitation of change…

‘Dear Sirs’ is a salutation used in the legal profession every working day.  But have you ever stopped to think why this terminology is used? And do you remember what you thought when you first learnt that it was normal to be put at the start of every letter?

When I was first told that this was the appropriate introduction to use when writing to other firms, companies and courts, I was shocked. I was shocked to have learnt that this is because, in the past, law firms were primarily owned by men, and the entirety of the legal profession was male-dominated. But, this was the past, so why is it still being used?

I asked my friends on my Legal Practice Course how they felt about this (we had just been given an example of how we should write a letter to a fellow professional and this too started with ‘Dear Sirs’). Everyone’s reaction was the same. ‘I couldn’t believe it at first but now I just write it without a second thought’.

This got me thinking about the stereotype of a traditional lawyer in the past.  White; male; middle class. But our introduction is never ‘Dear White People’ or ‘Dear Those of the Middle Class’, so why did we (and continue to) use ‘Dear Sirs’? I cannot think of another time in this profession when we even reference a defining characteristic of a person or group of people – so why should this be any different?  After all, we don’t sign off our letters with a word meaning a collective group of men!

With this thought, I sent the following riddle to Richard Fisher [Managing Partner]:-

A father and his son were travelling north on a motorway when their car unfortunately crashed. The father died instantly and the son was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. When the son arrived at the hospital, the surgeon said ‘I can’t operate on him, he’s my son’. How can this be?

*Spoiler below*

This riddle aims to explore gender stereotypes people may hold in respect of specific careers. Now surprisingly, only about 16% of people guess the correct answer. The researcher who considered this riddle concluded that a majority of people would think of unrealistic answers (such as the father arose from the dead, or the police thought the father was dead but he actually wasn’t so he went to the hospital to save his son) before they even comprehended that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother (that is the answer by the way)!

Although credit must be given to those who answer that the boy has two fathers, this answer, albeit progressive, arguably strengthens the premise that gender stereotypes are ever-present in our society as the subject still believes the surgeon is a man.

After a discussion with Richard about the language we use, the underlying intentions of it and the positive impacts simple changes can have, he thought that ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ was a more inclusive and appropriate salutation to use in our letters and he put the proposed change to the Board…

I am pleased to say that the Board agreed to the change (and Richard got the correct answer to the riddle!)

The year of 2020 has been indescribable and will most certainly go down in the history books, and not just because of Covid-19.  I feel this year has taught us all to be grateful for what we have, to be open and understanding with one another and most importantly, to actively fight for the rights of people who are discriminated against simply for being who they are.

So, the simple action of changing ‘Dear Sirs’ really shouldn’t get anyone down…it puts you at the forefront of change and that is something to be admired!

After all, 75% of the firm’s partners are female and I think you’d all agree that Heringtons would in no way be the same without these amazing women.

 

28 January 2021

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