Starting a Legal Letter

Beginning a formal letter to another law firm used to be the easiest thing in the world for a lawyer to do but in these days of gender equality, it has become a minefield. Our Legal English teachers look at what you should be writing.

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If you look at traditional Legal English books, you will see that 'Dear Sirs' is used at the start of example correspondence to other law firms. But is this kind of salutation old-fashioned at a time when the majority of solicitors are female? And if it is, what should lawyers use in its place?


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In 2016, Legal English UK client Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer announced that they were requiring fee earners to delete 'Dear Sirs' from letters bearing the Freshfields name. The firm stated that in the UK, letters should start 'Dear Sir or Madam', while in the United States letters should start 'Dear Ladies and Gentlemen.'


When we spoke to Freshfields, they confirmed that the idea had been 'well received' and was still in place but critics of the firm had a familiar refrain. As with many organisations where few women have broken the glass ceiling (fewer than 20% of Freshfields' partners are female), they felt that the firm was merely paying lip service to equality when there were bigger and better things that they could be doing such as hiring more female solicitors.


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There is also a grammar concern here: 'Dears Sirs' or it's far less popular sister 'Dear Mesdames' addresses a collective (the entire organisation) but 'Dear Sir or Madam' is addressing an individual, which seems odd when one is writing on behalf of one law firm to another law firm.


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Harry Small, a partner at another Legal English UK client Baker McKenzie, says: ‘We do not recommend the use of “Ladies and Gentlemen” because it implies that gender is binary.’ Instead, his firm would start letters to Freshfields with ‘Dear Freshfields’ which is still uncommon among Magic Circle law firms.


Cartridges Law in Exeter has an entirely female partnership yet the vast majority of letters to the firm begin with 'Dear Sirs'. While some letters do start with 'Dear Mesdames', this is considered even more old-fashioned than 'Dear Sir or Madam'. The preference there is for letters to be addressed as ‘Dear Cartridges Law’, ‘Dear Solicitors’ or ‘Dear Lawyers’.


What do we say?

So what is the international lawyer to do in this situation? Of course, you should refer to your law firm's style guide if such a tome exists but if it does not then you should look at the style of the firm itself. If the firm you are at is a progressive one then by all means use 'Dear Law Firm' or 'Dear Lawyers' but if your firm is more old-fashioned then stay with 'Dear Sirs' until you can force change from within.


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