"Dear Sirs": for a wide swath of legal, financial, and other professional services firms, it's the "accepted standard" form of address in communications. That is no longer the case for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, which this September became the first major British law firm to stipulate gender-inclusive alternatives such as "Dear Sir or Madam" in all communications and legal documents. The instigating force behind this move was Freshfields attorney Megan Castellano '11.
"'Dear Sirs' represents a world we don't live in, a world where women aren't running companies, or countries, or making brilliant contributions to their communities," says Castellano. "So I asked to speak with the managing partner at Freshfields about banning 'Dear Sirs' and moving to gender neutral/more inclusive language. Together, he and I strategized how to implement the new policy across the firm internationally."
This initiative was in character for Castellano, who has been determined to advance gender equality her whole life. "When I was little, my dream was to be the first female president. I believe this underlies my desire, also since I was little, to be a lawyer. I have always felt that being a lawyer gives you an ability, a platform, to effect change."
"At Cornell, my belief in the power of law only deepened. Cornell Law School fosters an atmosphere that encourages forward thinking, bravery, dedication, and self-belief. The Law School instills in you what it means to be a 'lawyer in the best sense': that you are more than yourself, that you have a responsibility to society and to further social progress."
After graduation, Castellano joined Freshfields in London, where she has now worked for five years as a capital markets attorney. "I love the opportunity to meet and work with interesting, driven, conscientious, and inspiring colleagues and clients, in particular inspiring women-partners at law firms, department heads at investment banks, directors at accountancy firms, CEOs and CFOs of companies," she says. "I'm inspired not just by these women themselves but by what they represent: progress, a willingness to fight, an ability to overcome."
Yet, in her professional life, Castellano often finds herself to be one of the few women, or the only one, in the room. "We're told women start off on equal footing career-wise, then disproportionately leave. I see that, for many of my female peers across the legal and financial services industries, lack of female role models plays a huge role, creating in effect a vicious cycle. But I think it's more than that. I think it's also the practices and behaviors that contribute to a male-oriented workplace culture: the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) reminders that we're being told to play by rules put in place over centuries of thought that said woman can't do it, women shouldn't be there, women should be satisfied with something other than fulfilling their potential."
She adds, "These practices and behaviors can be confidence sapping and, therefore, career shaping for women. We must tackle them by confronting them head-on and by raising awareness and fostering understanding. Banning 'Dear Sirs' is a case in point."
Within the short time since the initiative was implemented, Castellano has noted a ripple effect. She and Freshfields have received positive feedback and support from clients, counterparts, and peers. And a number of clients and counterparts, including investment banks, accountancies, and other law firms, have opted to follow suit. "I am humbled and even more motivated to keep the wave going," Castellano asserts. "I will continue to look for ways to incrementally advance toward gender equality. I believe incremental changes can lead to seismic shifts."