Queensland Law Society

Salutation or opening salvo?

Correctly addressing colleagues is an ethical obligation

“A critical importance of civility is in its relation to reason. Professional discourse, in and out of the courtroom, should be reasoned so as to be effective. Incivility inevitably leads away from rationality and balance and the necessary understanding of the adversary’s position.”[1]

As the legal profession modernises in response to changing societal values, many traditional practices have fallen by the wayside, and nowhere is this more obvious than in our communication. Latin has largely disappeared from the legal lexicon, and torturous phrases such as ‘we should be pleased if you would…’ and ‘true it is’ have fallen into disuse.

This is entirely appropriate as making the law more accessible to clients and laypeople is a positive. Unfortunately, some archaic terms persevere, including in our default terms of address; where once an initial letter to a law firm would almost inevitably begin with the term ‘Dear Sirs’, this is clearly no longer appropriate - and could be a violation of ethical duties.

Courtesy and civility are fundamental to the practice of the law, and essential to what we as solicitors do. We act as buffers between two parties - whether the matter be transactional or litigious - and our role is to make these matters go more smoothly; observing professional decorum in our communications facilitates this and complies with ethical duties. Adopting communication practices which increase friction rather than promote courteous engagement is both counter-productive and unethical.

Solicitors have an ethical duty to be courteous in all their dealings in legal practice[2] and this includes communication with opponents, colleagues and the community in general. This extends to ensuring that salutations to other members of the profession are accurate and appropriate. This means that a default to ‘dear sirs’ can transgress ethical boundaries, given the likelihood that any given firm these days will have solicitors of different genders as both partners and employees. Vigilance is required, as some software packages still have gender-specific salutations as a default.

It is clear that a generic opening, such as ‘Dear Colleagues’, is preferable and unlikely to offend personally or in an ethical sense. Naturally, when the identity of the addressee is sufficiently well known a more specific option can be used, although again the use of the generic ‘colleague’ could save offense and embarrassment. Such a practice also avoids the impression of inappropriate familiarity, which in a small and collegial legal community is a risk and one which may cause concern in clients if realised.

It should of course go without saying that the deliberate misuse of gender specific salutations, or similar practices goes against the spirit of a collegial profession and is also a violation of ethical duties. Practitioners who stoop to this should expect no sympathy from colleagues or regulators when such practices come to light - and the fact that a client had authorised or encouraged such behaviour will be of no protection.

Our role in any engagement is to solve problems and facilitate resolutions, not to agitate existing tensions or become embroiled in pointless contention with our fellow practitioners. Addressing one another respectfully and accurately is an ethical necessity, and sets a good example for our clients to follow.

Shane Budden

Ethics Solicitor

6 July 2018

[1] Justice Philip McMurdo, ‘Civility and Professional Courtesy’ (Speech delivered at the Queensland Law Society Symposium, Brisbane Exhibition and Convention Centre, 21 March 2014).

[2] Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2012, r 4.