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One of the world's top law firms has clarified its position on a major question of Legal English by announcing that its lawyers should no longer begin letters with the salutation "Dear Sirs."
Freshfields has stated that in the UK, letters to corporate clients must begin with the "Dear Sir or Madam." In the US, correspondence must begin with "Dear Ladies and Gentlemen."
Typically, language tutors will teach lawyers to begin letters with "Dear Sirs" as this has been standard practice for hundreds of years. This is because historically, men worked and women stayed at home. Freshfields is the first major law firm to announce this policy change with other firms likely to follow.
Megan Castellano, a lawyer with Freshfields, analysed legal documents from ten IPOs (initial public offerings or share sales) and discovered that 81 law firms and banks used the term "Dear Sirs" in their legal documents. She told the London School of Legal English that "the research showed us the magnitude (the seriousness) of the problem." Chris Pugh, who is joint managing partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer told us that "It’s a relatively small change, but it’s a significant point and you notice that, when everyone immediately accepts that the change needs to happen. I hope it will shed light on other things that we might inadvertently be doing that risk alienating people we communicate with.”
London Law Firms
We asked several law firms in the City of London to comment on the changes. Slaughter & May, one of the most traditional law firms in the City of London, declined to comment whilst Linklaters told us that they were evaluating their position: “It’s important that all communications and forms that we use are appropriate for all genders and we are evaluating this. But the main focus of our diversity and inclusion initiatives is and remains addressing the lack of inclusion across all strands not just gender. Linklaters is fully committed to doing so.”
Michael Davies, a Legal English language trainer told us that the news was to be welcomed: "I remember being asked by a barrister for clarification on this and it is difficult as many law firms tend to stick to tradition. Now, I can at least advise students that law firms have taken a further march to gender equality"
Law in England and Wales has always been known for its conservatism. In 1913, the Law Society (which regulates solicitors) declined to allow four women to sit the Law Society examinations. The Court of Appeal agreed with the decision, ruling that women were not “persons” for the purposes of the Solicitors Act 1843.
Legal English Language Training Solutions runs language courses for lawyers and staff at Baker & McKenzie, Cisco and countless law firms around the world. For further information, please contact us by e-mail, by filling out the form on this page or by calling (44)0 20 3566 0145.
Five tips for writing good legal letters
Think carefully about exactly what you are going to say before writing your letter.
Give your letter a reference or heading so that the person you are writing to can quickly see what it is about.
Use short sentences where possible so that the reader can understand you.
Decide on order of importance and put each idea into a separate paragraph. Make sure it is concise: delete anything that is irrelevant or you do not think is needed.
Check your letter after you have written it. Will your reader understand exactly what you mean and will it create the right impression? Ask the person in your organisation with the best Legal English to read it through for any spelling or grammar or layout errors.