How should I address my colleagues?

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 practice1 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 with a range of 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 offence and embarrassment. Such a practice may also avoid the impression of inappropriate familiarity, which may be necessary with regard to certain clients. 

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 could also be 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.

(updated on 7 January 2020)

1 Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2012, r 4.