MS is not a four letter word by Lucy Reed (neé Reed)

I despair sometimes at ever being properly addressed by my given and chosen name. It’s only short but it causes oh so much trouble.

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Every time I attend an unfamiliar court I go through the motions when I sign in: I enunciate ‘Ms…Lucy…Reed…no it’s double E D…I’m counsel for the Respondent / Applicant…’ (it’s only four letters but 99% of people want to spell it Reid – my husband’s utterly unspellable name fortifies me against abandonment of both my principles and my surname for the sake of an easy life) and then I sigh as they write down ‘Miss Reed’. Even when the court staff don’t ignore what I say the judge inevitably does. As do most colleagues at the bar. I don’t even bother in my local court any more. Diversity training in the court service evidently covers the range of religious books upon which one might swear an oath, but not the respect for gender neutral nomenclature that one might wish to see from the machinery of justice.

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And I am steeling myself for the inevitable day when I realise I look too old to be a Miss anymore, and will be forcibly promoted to a Mrs. Depressing, but at least then it will accurately reflect my marital status, even though it’s nobody’s business but mine (and my other half’s).

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There seem to be very few women in my profession who do not describe themselves either as Miss or Mrs. Ms is not the done thing at the bar. It’s an awkward term, and for some I sense it marks the wearer out as a member of the awkward squad. Perhaps that’s a first impression which may be disadvantageous to the advocate trying to smooth her way into favour with the Judge? I don’t really think so – generally those who hold such views are quite capable of making assumptions about uppity women with or without the tag ‘Ms’ – but if it is the case, so be it. More fool anyone who prejudges an individual on such irrelevant trivia. In a profession where seniority is marked only by the starkness of ‘junior’ versus ‘silk’ and the gradual accrual of years of experience, for which a ready reckoner is the age of an advocate: titles matter. ‘Miss Reed’ is very junior and the term can be skillfully intoned (by Judge or opponent) to delicately undermine an advocate by connoting inexperience, just as ‘Mrs Reed’ can use her marital status to command authority (and particularly in family law to insinuate maternal experience or solid good sense). These nuances go unnoted by many, but they do exist and are and in play by way of both conscious manipulation and as a subconscious manifestation of gender or age based preconceptions. But if I’m to be prejudged I prefer it to be on my principles, not on my marital status: so Ms it is..

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I know it’s difficult to remember – ‘Ms’. And I also know it’s an irritating sounding word, but I don’t have a better one that doesn’t divulge irrelevant information. We all get names and titles wrong (including  to our mutual mortification when I have, on more than one occasion when a newbie, called a female Judge ‘Sir’. This however was not so embarrassing as when a learning disabled client in an employment tribunal case I once did picked up on me addressing the Chair as ‘Madam’ and persistently referred to her throughout the hearing as ‘The Madam’ which has altogether less respectable connotations). So I don’t generally make a fuss (Unless someone is using ‘Miss’ in a particularly condescending ‘she doesn’t know what she’s talking about’ tone). I generally don’t want to point out that someone has been unintentionally inconsiderate or make a mountain out of a simple mistake. But it is annoying. Today I heard my opponent, a solicitor, gently correcting the usher ‘it’s Ms actually’. I sometimes do the same, but often make light of it to spare the blushes of the court staff who frankly have more important things to worry about. This article in the Guardian which I came across this evening says a lot I agree with (and has an astonishing 200+ comments, expressing a wide array of views on the issue – it is an emotive topic).

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So no, I don’t stand on principle about my title. I don’t get all narky or insulted when people get it wrong (although I might occasionally write long rambly blog posts in order to relieve my moderate levels of frustration). And I have long since given up taking my wedding ring off during the working week and referring on principle to my ‘partner’ not my husband. There was a time when I was fearful that preconceptions about my personal life might adversely affect my career (that a wedding ring might be a sign of imminent pregnancy and a lack of commitment to my vocation), and although I no longer think it is either right or necessary to behave as if I am ashamed of my personal circumstances or my gender, I am also wise enough to know that my fear had some foundation – I have during my career heard astonishing remarks about why recruitment of women to the bar is best avoided, and this from senior members of the bar who should know better. But there are other ways of dealing with that. The answer is to surround oneself with good and clever people, to come out of the shadows, and to do what I do and to do it bloody well. And to quietly persist with getting my name known.

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So…that’s Ms (NO ‘i’) Lucy (NO ‘i’) Reed (NO ‘i’). Write it down. There will be a test later.

6 thoughts on “MS is not a four letter word by Lucy Reed (neé Reed)

  1. Nick Langford

    I sympathise. I strongly object to being addressed as Nick Longford, it could cause terrible confusion.

    (And apologies for the spelling mistake in my last posting)

  2. I have met this lady professionally:

    http://www.richandcarr.co.uk/atv.htm

    You think you have problems…

    • Now that’s just MEAN. On the basis of the ‘boy named Sue’ theory she is no doubt an excellent and fearless advocate. Actually chuckled rather more at the legally ironic names of her colleagues ‘Verity Lyon’ (Say it out loud to geddit) and ‘Verity Drinkall’ whose names would make excellent and wholly unprofessional nicknames for some of my more unreliable clients. What ARE the chances of having two lawyers in one firm called VERITY anyway?

  3. I always get referred to as ‘Mrs’ at my local court, despite signing in as Ms. It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be becasue I look too old to be a ‘Miss’ So thank you for that 😉

    Much more startling, I once arrived at court to be greeted by name by the Clerk, who then went on to say ‘your husband was just here’… (I’m not married, never have been, and have never had a partner who is a lawyer…)

  4. Angela Titley-Vial

    Not sure who picked up on my name – seems to be a slim chance of someone looking on Rich and Carr websit just for this purpose so maybe it is someone who knows me – come clean! Actually I still use the sobriquet Mrs even though I have been divorced for some 15 years now because I prefer the gravitas that the word Mrs implies, I already did the children thing (youngest aged 9) and am now way too old to be concerned about people thinking I will fall pregnant etc. Respect to everyone’s views but I am not keen on Ms which I think conjures up in peoples minds a vision of burn the bra feminism (please note I am not saying this is right, just a fact of life!)

    And yes I believe myself to be a fearsome advocate and opponent……

    And please do not diss my colleagues’ names – they are both fearsome opponents too….

    ATV

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