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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Why the Freshfields removal of “Dear Sirs” is a Complete Failure

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You might have seen it in dispatches, but the other day apparently Freshfields directed all the people who work there to stop using “dear sirs” in their letters.


This is definitely a victory for the masses that should be celebrated by all and sundry as a massive advancement towards gender equality around the world.

Except that it isn’t.

What it is, from both a gender and a drafting perspective, is an indictment on everyone involved. In fact, I’m a little amazed that the announcement wasn’t made together with an abject apology.

Now on the one hand, I consider salutations on letters to be in that category of “can I really care about this more than just a little bit?”. I am not in the category of people who are offended by this beyond finding it mildly stupid, although I can see how it’s potentially infuriating.

On the other hand, if you’re going to do something, then do it right.

The Gender Issue

Apparently managing partner Chris Pugh said:

I hope it will shed light on other things that we might inadvertently be doing that risk alienating not only people at Freshfields but clients as well

Inadvertently? Like when you have 13% female partners? Is that the kind of inadvertent alienation we’re talking about?

What about the fact that when you change “Dear Sirs” to “Dear Sir or Madam” you’re still putting the male version first?

Except, of course, in the US where you are going to say “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen” as if you are about to commence some kind of oratory.

Beyond that, let’s consider the fact that the associate who brought the issue to the attention of the partners apparently researched 10 IPOs and 81 other firms and corporates to arrive at the conclusion that this was an issue. I’m going to ignore how long that probably took, why she did it, or what was going through her head while she did, and leap to the obvious issue: surely this one was a no-brainer?

Couldn’t this be a simple “yo boss, why is everything dear sirs when we live in a culture that might find that offensive and there are plenty of women partners in firms now?” and the boss can respond “oh yeah you’re completely right – sorry about that, we’ll get on to it”.

I can only assume that in order to support their decision and make themselves look slightly less bad, they had to find out that a bunch of other people were similarly cave-man like in their approach to legal drafting. That way, when you make your announcement you can say how deep the issue ran and how you were a leader in your field for making this decision that should have been made 15 75 years ago.

The Drafting Issues

Whatever you use, whether it’s:

  • Dear Sirs
  • Dear Sir/Madam
  • Dear Sirs and Mesdames
  • Dear Ladies and Gentlemen
  • Dear Gentlemen and Ladies
  • Dear Colleagues
  • Dear Other Folks
  • Dear Losers
  • Dear Lawyers

they have a common characteristic: they serve no meaningful point.

Here’s a startling revelation – you could remove that kind of salutation entirely and not change a single thing in the actual meaning of the letter. You might have a minor impact on the tone, of course, but the letter itself is going to have the exact some contents either way.

Now if you were using a personal salutation like “Dear Bob” or “Dear Mrs Smith” then that might be different – but many firms now use an Attention: Person approach to this in the address block itself, which makes lots of sense.

So while the magic circle catches up with 2006 in its huge strides towards gender neutral salutations, the rest of us should be considering just abolishing them entirely.

Next, in changing the language this way (that is – to Dear Sir or Madam), they have actually changed the meaning of the salutation entirely.

The reason “Dear Sirs” exists is because, traditionally, you were writing to the firm rather than to the individual. And, of course, for a long time only men were partners in law firms – thus, Dear Sirs.  That’s why it was plural, and it’s also why you started marking things to people’s attention, rather than actually directing the letter to them. The letter is actually addressed to the firm, which is as true now as it was then.

However, “Dear Sir or Madam” does not achieve that goal – you’re now clearly saluting the individual involved rather than the firm, since you’re using the singular of each. That begs the question: if you’re writing to an individual, you probably know who that is. So if you must address it then why not actually address them?

If you don’t at first, then at least later you will – and don’t you think that you might “inadvertently” offend some people once you know who they are if you address them as “Dear Sir or Madam”? If my wife wrote me an email that started with “Dear Sir or Madam” then something probably went horribly wrong that day.

The only option to maintain the original purpose of the (redundant) salutation would be to say “Dear Sirs and Mesdames” or “Dear Sirs and Madames” or “Dear Sirs/Mesdames” (or any of those the other way around) or some variation.

All of which sound stupid.

Honestly “Dear Colleagues” is probably the only one that makes any vague sense if we insist on having anything.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think – is Freshfields decision a paragon of gender equality? Are salutations even necessary?

Happy Lawyering!

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  • Interesting piece Chris. Some might (mistakenly) label it as trivial. But in reality, it can be the little things that harm us in both a business and a personal sense. How you start a letter sets the tone for all that follows. If you happen to strike someone who obsesses about how they are addressed, then you risk losing them for all that follows in your correspondence.

    I personally use “Dear Sir/Madam,” for all correspondence where I am not aware in advance of the actual identity of the intended recipient, e.g. When addressing to the Proper Officer or similar. I use the singular rather than the plural because the reader will be an individual, even if I have addressed the letter to an organisation. I realise there is some incongruity in that approach, but I tend to use my own sensibility as a guide in trying to work out whether a reader will be ‘offended’ by my greeting and I feel less ‘irritated’ by being addressed in the singular when receiving such letters.

    I am of an earlier generation than yours and have to admit to a level of bemusement by gender politics. One never knows how to address women in order to avoid offence. If one calls someone ‘Ms’, one now risks offending that small but growing group of married women who actually prefer the title ‘Mrs’ (my wife and daughter included). But at the same time as women are asserting the use of gender neutral titles such as ‘chairperson’, they have appropriated male descriptors such as ‘actor’ and ‘hero’, even though female equivalents have existed for centuries. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to this, other than to cast off old terms (if only to replace them with different old terms).

    Perhaps we should be experimenting with new ways to greet those who receive or correspondence. How do these sound? Dear Addressee, Dear Recipient, Dear Manager, Dear Employee, Dear Staff Member, Dear Company Secretary, The military and govt have long used rank/position titles when addressing correspondence. Could this be a way forward?

    • Hey there Glenn – some good observations there, and I take your point about the tone issue. Tone can definitely be affected by seemingly minor things like the salutation, and so subtle differences could arise. That said, where our options for “Setting the tone” by using a salutation are so limited, I think there’s probably not too much scope – although Dear Bob is clearly different to Dear Mr Smith which is different to Dear Sir which is different to Dear Sir/Madam. Using your own sensibility certainly works, but in mega-firms where everything is governed by rules and style guides, I suspect the level of fear associated with giving people that kind of freedom is probably at the extreme end of crazy.

      • I can’t argue with either you, Chris, or you, Katherine. My sensibilities come for six decades on this earth, during which I have, usually inadvertently, managed to offend my share of others. Perhaps having finely hone those sensibilities over such a lengthy period of trial and error, I should offer them to the mega-firms at a reasonable ‘per-letter’ rate.:). It would at least be easier than legal work and, if I set the right rate, might be a nice income to retire on!

  • I had thought the purpose of ‘Dear Sirs’ was to indicate that you were writing formally: one firm to another firm.

    When writing to individuals who I do not know (and whose gender I do not know), I might ‘Dear Sir or Madam’.

    But if you’re a solicitor writing formally from your firm to another firm you say ‘Dear Sirs’, presumably because the traditional position was that a law firm would be a general partnership and pre-1919 its partners were male.

    Which is to say that ‘ Dear Sir or Madam’ does not work if you’re writing to a firm. It should be Dear Sirs or Madams.

  • The alternatives to the classical Sir/Madam approach are indeed many, varied and similarly unsuccessful in terms of engendering any ‘it’s for me’ effect. While such effect should be sought, as it will always increase reading, retention and response to content. And then there is the failure of Freshfields to address the full, current gender spectrum – implying further salutation renovation soon. No salutation is probably best, logically. However, as the writer observes, this could have an emotional effect – on perceived tone (turning letters, for instance, into impersonal, general notices). And, as any direct marketer will tell you, communication effectiveness increases in line with degree of personalisation. Something like ‘Dear Reader’ comes to mind as a catch-all (but a bit bookish or bloggish). Most effective would be to get creative and vary the salutation in relation to recipient (group), with salutations like friends, colleagues, clients, suppliers/partners, etc. coming to mind.

  • Basically I am just taking this as permission to write “Dear Losers” forever. Happy that’s a proper noun too.

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