In my last blog post I provided a list of definitions to help you engage in respectful communications with all parties in your cases. Beyond familiarity with the correct terms, you need to know how to address parties correctly, particularly when a party is transgender.
Collecting the correct name and pronouns is especially important. You should avoid using the term “preferred” name and pronouns, as it really isn’t a “preference” for trans people. Instead, use the phrase “chosen name” and just “pronouns” without modifier. Chosen name and pronouns should be gathered as early as possible in the attorney-client relationship, usually during intake. Once a person’s chosen name and pronouns have been collected, they should always be used unless a legal name is required by law. You might choose to ask for pronouns if the client’s chosen name appears to differ in gender from the client’s legal name.
It would be best practice to ask every single client for their chosen name and pronouns, but, for attorneys who work mostly with cisgender clients, LGBTQ+ terminology can be confusing.
Attorneys can also elicit pronouns by introducing themselves with their own pronouns or by including pronouns in correspondence with clients (such as in signature blocks). This can also indicate to clients that the office is LGBTQ+ friendly and create a welcoming environment. That looks like this:
Jessica Markham, Attorney at Law
Markham Law Firm
7960 Old Georgetown Road, #3B
Bethesda, Maryland 20814
Be sure to ask the client if it is appropriate to disclose their identity, or if there are certain situations in which they don’t want their identity disclosed. For example, if a client lives with other people who don’t know that they’re transgender, it would be grossly inappropriate to leave a voicemail or send mail identifying the client by their chosen name and outing them to others.
If you use the wrong pronoun when speaking to a client or attorney, apologize and move on; there’s no need to belabor the point.
Jessica Markham is the owner of Markham Law Firm, a family law firm in Bethesda.