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‘Dear Sir or Madam’ is outmoded at best, offensive at worst

Jessica Markham

Jessica Markham

I recently attended a thought-provoking webinar CLE conducted by the Association of Corporate Counsel. The title was Gender Inclusive Legal Writing and Communications (Why “Dear Sir or Madam Must Go”).

I feel that I am fairly mindful when it comes to gender inclusivity, but incorporating my values into my purely legal writing (motions, subpoenas, complaints, etc.) is not something I had given much thought to before. I found it very refreshing that the legal community is discussing this topic. As I’ve said in previous blogs, we are in the business of language and words matter!

First, the speakers pointed out that diversity is a “worthy but insufficient goal” and that we should be working toward inclusion, which is more meaningful. However, gendered communications are commonplace and are not inclusive. What if you’re receiving a legal correspondence and you’re neither a “sir” nor a “madam”? Further, have you ever noticed when using “his/her,” “he/she,” “Mr./Mrs.” that the man is always given primacy? Do we want these types of conventions to continue? And why are we even referencing women’s marital status in our letters? Is it really necessary to know if the female recipient of our letter is married by choosing and then using either Miss or Mrs.? These conventions are outmoded at best, offensive and patriarchal at worst.

The instructors offered practical advice on using more inclusive alternatives to traditional gendered legal writing. They suggested the following:

  • Use “they/them” pronouns and make use of the singular “they” when referring to a person
  • Instead of using gendered pronouns, try using other descriptors, such as “Plaintiff breached (their) duty of care”
  • If you don’t know what title someone prefers, you can use any of the following:
    • To Whom It May Concern
    • Dear Clerk of Court
    • Dear Records Administrator
  • When greeting a large group, replace “Ladies and gentlemen” with words like “Welcome everyone,” “Hi everyone” or “Hi folks.”

Jessica Markham is the owner of Markham Law Firm, a family law firm in Bethesda.

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