Pronouns in the Profession: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Legal Field

by Chanan Brown, 1L, Syracuse University College of Law

During my orientation to law school, a mere three weeks ago, I attended an alumni panel on a particular practice area of law.  I raised my hand to ask a question and, as I was acknowledged by the moderator, it occurred to me for the first time:  I have no idea how to formally address practicing attorneys.

The attorney to whom my question was directed was named Marcy*, presented as a woman, and had been referred to by others in the room using feminine pronouns. In that moment, it, perhaps, would have been appropriate to use the formal prefix “Ms.” in conjunction with the panelist’s surname.  In fact, in retrospect, I’m certain that would have been appropriate.  However, in the fleeting moment between being called on by the moderator and stating my question, I had the overwhelming realization that professional language in the legal field is fraught with gender.

As a queer person with no preference for pronouns (more on that below), I make a habit of attempting not to assume gender.  More accurately, I put forth a conscious effort to shape my rhetoric in a way that precludes my assumptions and biases associated with gender.  This is often contrary to many instances in the legal profession where assuming one’s gender is pragmatic and possibly even expected.

From the example above, everyone else involved in the discussion assumed (correctly) that the panelist was a woman.  Upon that assumption, I could easily have said, “I have a question for Ms. ____.”  In fact, that form of address is often accepted as being most respectful.  But what happens to the level of perceived respect when one’s gender is incorrectly assumed?

Being a queer student, I’ve made a habit of meeting with my professors to discuss my preference for using my proper name as a form of address. My gender identity is fluid, and often non-binary, which means that I generally prefer simply using my proper name over any form of pronoun. However, I admittedly present as very masculine—enough that most people feel comfortable assuming I prefer masculine pronouns.  In law school, I’ve continued pursuing those discussions with my professors; though, as a professional student, the implications and concerns regarding gendered forms of address are very distinct from undergrad.  I’ve found, thus far, that my law professors are very receptive to conversations regarding gendered rhetoric and, in particular, the implications of such rhetoric as it relates to their students’ identities.  In an environment where so many authority figures use gendered honorifics (Mr., Ms., etc.), I find this openness to be crucial.

At a meeting with one of my professors during the first week of classes, we discussed alternatives to them referring to me as “Mr. Brown” when I’m called on.  As someone who has had similar conversations with professors at the undergraduate level, I was taken aback by the contrast to past experiences.  I found so many issues at play that I had not considered in the past.  My professor shared that they use this mode of address out of respect; and that my being the only student addressed using a given name could be misinterpreted by other students, implying that the professor and I have a different, possibly more privileged, relationship.

The professor offered to use a gender-neutral honorific such as “M.” or Mx.,” which, for many non-binary people would probably feel extremely comfortable—not for me.  Part of my delight in using my proper name over pronouns is that I am not forced to “come out” as gender fluid.  While that may not hold in a classroom where everyone else is referred to using gendered modes of address, I have undoubtedly found it most comfortable in the past. Whereas, if a professor were to use “M.” or “Mx.” when addressing me while I’m on call, other students would immediately know a detail about my queer identity that is, to some degree, intimate.

The professor and I, together, ultimately settled on maintaining “Mr. Brown.”  Given their completely valid concerns about using my first name, I immediately removed that as an option.  After that, it became a matter of coming out to my entire section in the first week of law school, or hiding behind my privilege as masculine-presenting.  I chose the latter.  I—as many queer people do—feel the urgency to protect my identity to a certain degree and that became a priority in this decision.  Unfortunately, not “coming out” means relying on the privilege of my perceived identity in an historically oppressive binary system.

As I progress through law school, I intend to explore this further, and with vigor.  I am wonderfully fortunate to have professors who respect their students and have been extraordinarily thoughtful in their approaches to this matter.  However, this issue extends far beyond the classroom, to the profession as a whole.

As my first story illustrated, this only becomes more difficult outside of the walls of law school.  Attorneys don’t have one common honorific like medical doctors or professors.  But as we progress and more gender fluid and non-binary people enter the profession, the rhetoric available will have to change.  At the very least there should be accuracy in the language we use to address each other.  And at the most, we should be concerned with respecting the identities of our fellow colleagues in the legal profession.  I’ve found that, overall, the legal field values diversity and cultural difference and is welcoming to anyone with the conviction to do the work and do it well.  The time has come to not only propagate those values in spirit, but in language as well.