Very few of us will forget 2020. As a profession, we have shown resilience, adaptability and creativity under incredibly challenging circumstances. 2021 will, we hope, see the return of the normality so many of us crave.
2020 also gave us a chance to reflect. The lessons we have learned mean that we will never really go back to “normal”. In some ways this may be a good thing. The last year has forced us to confront practices that we do not believe are working, and think about how we create lasting change. So, in the spirit of new year resolutions, we suggest that one practice we should all leave behind this year is the use of “Dear Sirs” in formal letters.
As you rush to catch the post, it is easy to quickly open a firm style, paying little heed to the default masculine salutation. We have done it ourselves. In less busy moments, you might pause and amend. However, from our own experiences as junior women in the profession, we know it is unlikely that you'll start a wider conversation about what those two words represent. We tell ourselves that it's not the time or place. We worry that we'll be seen to be causing a fuss over nothing, that there are bigger issues at play. We say it doesn't matter.
Yet, as lawyers, we know that accurate drafting does matter. Indeed, we pride ourselves on it. However, “Dear Sirs” is premised on an inaccurate assumption that it will be a male colleague who receives your letter. Given that our profession is now 53% female, chances are that this assumption is incorrect. Some say that “Dear Sirs” is appropriate as it refers to the firm, not an individual. To this we would say that the erasure of all women partners in Scotland is regrettable.
This form of address is not just inaccurate, however. It represents something greater. The use of “Dear Sirs” privileges the male norm. It tells women that we do not belong. Lady Hale, writing about the lack of women in the judiciary, noted that “the absence of women from the bench is even more important than our presence, in the message it sends out”. We suggest the same can be said here.
Fortunately, unlike increasing judicial diversity, there is a simple solution. It does not take radical measures and is not resource intensive. A number of firms in Scotland have already issued guidance and updated their styles. The Law Society of Ireland discontinued the use of “Dear Sirs” last year. Suggested alternatives include Dear Sir or Madam; Dear [firm name]; Dear Solicitors; or Dear Colleagues.
Perhaps making this simple change will focus our minds on how to tackle the bigger problems, which do require strategic, collaborative action. Our gender pay gap still stands at 23%. Women make up fewer than 30% of partners. A third of women who responded to 2018 Law Society of Scotland research reported personal experience of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment. One hundred years since Madge Easton Anderson became the first woman law agent in Scotland, there remains work to be done.
As with any lengthy to do list, starting with a simple task can get the ball rolling. So, as we enter this new year, let's update the firm style and prioritise equality in 2021.
Seonaid Stevenson-McCabe, Katy MacAskill and Màiri McAllan, co-founders, RebLaw Scotland
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