Top City law firm goes “gender neutral”
As potentially one of the first “magic circle” firms to do so, Freshfields has banned the use of “Dear Sirs” from any of its communications or legal documents.
Recognised as a top City company and one of Britain’s most established law firms, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has now refrained from using the term. Instead, any UK correspondence will be headed with “Dear Sir or Madam”, whereas those in the US will be addressed with “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen”. Alternatives on an international level have also been agreed across a range of languages – Cantonese, Mandarin and various European – to accommodate Freshfields’ global clientele.
The change was introduced following research into legal documents from the 10 most recent initial public offerings of private company shares, conducted by one of the firm’s London associates. It revealed that 81 banks and law firms only used “Dear Sirs” within any correspondence.
Commenting on the change and potentially impact it will have within the business was joint managing partner, Chris Pugh:
“It’s a relatively small change, but it’s a significant point and you notice that when everyone immediately accepts that the change needs to happen.”“I hope it will shed light on other things that we might inadvertently be doing that risk alienating people we communicate with – not only people at Freshfields but clients and other professionals as well.” Also mentioning the delayed nature of the change was Sam Smethers. The chief executive of the Fawcett Society – the UK’s largest charity for women’s rights – commented on the impact that language can have.
“It’s to be welcomed, but it is pretty basic stuff which we should all be doing really. I still get referred to as ‘Mr Sam Smethers’ by the media, despite being the chief executive of a women’s charity. We have to think about the language we use as it reveals the assumptions and decisions being made. Even parliament continues to use ‘he’ in legislation, the assumption being that that will refer to everyone. We should be looking at gender neutral language for our legislation too.”
Stating the male address was simply “accepted standard” was law firm Withers. A spokesman mentioned the specificities of the individual being addressed would largely impact how any communication was headed. “It very much depends on who we’re writing to. If they are an individual then it depends on their gender and title. If it’s an organisation, then we currently use ‘Dear Sirs’ as that remains the accepted standard. There is currently no formal plan to change this, but it is an area we’re happy to explore.”