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Professional Development

How Should You Refer to People Who You Interact with Professionally?

Grover E Cleveland

How Should You Refer to People Who You Interact with Professionally?

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Here is my quick and dirty rule: If you are in a position of giving advice or providing value to another person, use their first name. In other situations, start with a more formal salutation.

University of Utah law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman recently called on students to stop calling professors by their first names. Her post for PrawfsBlawg expressed frustration with “nonconsensual first-name calling” and caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal.

Professor Baughman’s post argued that casual interactions between professors and students could give students a false impression of the formality of the legal profession. Her post includes some important reminders about the need for lawyers to choose their words carefully.

But the debate over salutations also highlights the challenges new lawyers face in navigating hazy professional norms.

This post is not about attire, but this example about clothing is illuminating.

At a recent job fair, a Biglaw partner from California insisted that summer associates should wear ties. He said he would not support an offer for a summer associate who showed up on the first day with an open collar. But even within the same state, norms can differ: There is a joke that in Silicon Valley that the only people who wear suits are used car salesmen.

What’s a new lawyer to do?

Communication can be just as perplexing. The appropriate formality can vary by region, the means of communication, its content, and the audience, among other factors.

Here are some suggestions for selecting the right salutations.

Professors and Law School Administrators

Here, lean toward formality. Address professors and administrators however they prefer  (This is also a good general rule for most communications in life.)

There is no reason to start a conversation in a way that will detract from your message  The first word out of your mouth should never irk—unless that is your clear intent.

If you are uncertain about how to address a person, ask. Usually, there are clues. Professor Baughman, for example, refers to herself as “Professor” when she introduces herself and signs emails with “Prof. B.”

Although using “Professor . . .” may seem stilted or old-fashioned to you, professors may consider other salutations too chummy  And remember, even most professors refer to the Dean as “Dean . . . .”

Potential Employers

Formality is also your friend, particularly if the recipient is not a close friend. This situation usually does not pose a dilemma. After proofreading your resume 1,000 times, starting communications with a formal salutation seems natural. This is particularly true with letters.

For emails, use a formal salutation in your first email. Then take your cues from the person’s response. If the person signs off using their first name, that’s usually a signal for you to use their first name. Otherwise, continuing with the formal approach is the safest  People who prefer to be addressed by their first name will usually tell you.

Colleagues and Clients

Here, the rules change. Address colleagues and clients by their first names—unless a colleague or client requests something else. Formal salutations highlight differences in age and experience. When you give advice to another person, using a formal salutation can undermine your credibility.

That is not what you want when advising clients or providing information to other lawyers. Many new lawyers struggle with feeling as if they are not taken seriously because they look young. Using formal salutations tends to make matters worse.

And here is where things can get tricky. You want senior lawyers to think of you as a colleague. So use first names. But—you also have to remember that you are not peers. Senior lawyers are likely to appreciate—and expect—some deference.

You can’t forget that your job is to be as helpful as possible to more senior lawyers. Other lawyers don’t want to fix things that you could fix. And they don’t want you to ask them to do things you could do.

Opposing Counsel

Formality is usually appropriate here. When you write to opposing counsel, your client is also part of the intended audience. Formality shows your client that you are being serious with the other party.


It should go without saying, but in court proceedings, formality rules. Use anything besides “Your honor” or “Judge . . .” at your peril.

As with everything else in law, there are exceptions to every rule. Use your judgment, and always remember to consider the impact of your words on your intended recipient.

If you think you may have slipped up, just course correct and give yourself a break. No one will die.