Forms of address

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How should we address and refer to each other?

Working in the law requires you to be sensitive to others in a variety of ways, and one is in terms of how you refer to and address other people. Referring to a person is talking about them to third parties. Addressing a person is speaking to that person. Certain circumstances demand formality, where you will refer to or address people with their titles and last names. Others demand informality, where you refer to or address people by their first names. Consider these scenarios:

  • You are a new associate in a law firm. You notice that second-year associates all refer to and address other lawyers in the firm by first name in the office. You should do the same.
  • Same as the previous example, but there are two elderly partners to whom everyone refers as “Mr. Dugg” and “Mrs. Nelson.” You should do the same.
  • Same as the previous example, except you notice that when folks in the firm refer to each other to folks outside the firm, they usually use formal titles. You should follow that practice.
  • You are appearing in court in an action involving a claim for damages in a business dispute or taking the deposition of an opposing party in the same court action. When you refer to or address witnesses and opposing counsel, you should use title and last name. (A judge may actually reprimand you if you do not do so.)
  • You are appearing in a child-protection hearing regarding seven-year-old Shree Gupta. Because child-protection hearings are less formal in this jurisdiction—for example, the judge does not wear robes, the room is arranged almost like a classroom, etc.— everyone refers to and addresses Shree by his first name. You should do the same.
  • You are a student research assistant for Professor Edna St. Vincent, who has asked you to call her by her first name. You should do so while meeting with her, etc., but outside of one-on-one interactions with her, you should refer to her as “Professor St. Vincent.”
  • Same as the previous example, except that you have a seminar with Professor St. Vincent where she has asked all students to refer to her as “Edna.” In that class and when talking with other students in the class, you may call her “Edna.” But outside of the seminar, you should still refer to and address her as “Professor St. Vincent.”
  • Professor St. Vincent is promoted to associate dean for student affairs. You should now refer to and address her as “Dean St. Vincent,” the higher title, in those cases where you previously would have called her “Professor St. Vincent.”
  • Professor St. Vincent is appointed to a federal circuit court of appeals as a judge. You should now refer to her as “Judge St. Vincent,” and you should address her as “Your Honor.”
  • You are introducing a speaker—Marshall Jones—who is a law professor visiting from another school. He also has a PhD, which is less common for law professors than other types of professor. You might introduce him as “Dr. Jones,” arguably the higher title, but “Professor Jones” will also do. You might alternate between the two titles.

As a general rule in the law, err on the side of formality. You can always get more informal. Be conscious of whether you are going informal only with certain types of people. For example, do you use first names with female colleagues and formal address with male colleagues? Do you think that represents a problem?

It is important for you to be comfortable switching between formality and informality.

Last Updated On December 10, 2018

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