Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: How should I refer to people that I interact with professionally? Are first names okay?

A: 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.

Recently, University of Utah law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman called for students to stop calling professors by their first name. 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 can give students a false impression about 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 often hazy professional norms.

This post is not about attire. But an 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, the only people who wear suits are used car salesmen.

What’s a new lawyer to do?

Communications 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 sound 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, just ask. But 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 antiquated to you, professors may consider other salutations too chummy. And remember, even most professors refer to the Dean as “Dean . . . .”

Potential Employers. Here, too, formality is your friend, particularly if the recipient is not a close friend. This situation usually does not pose a dilemma. After you have proofread your resume 1,000 times, it only seems natural to start communications with a formal salutation. 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 are providing advice to another person, using a formal salutation can undermine your credibility.

That is not what you want when you are 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 that 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.

Judges. This 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.

Good luck!

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer. The book is in its Second Edition. (West 2016). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. 

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