A Pronouns Primer for Practitioners


Collins, a person with short brown hair and glasses, wears a pale blue shirt and navy blue jacket.Brooks, a white woman with light brown hair, wears a black blouse and tan suit.By Collins Saint and Elizabeth “Brooks” Savage

Lawyers are increasingly exposed to gender identity, sexual orientation, and other LGBTQ+ related topics as awareness, acceptance, and open expression of such identities continues to increase in modern society. To honor International Pronouns Day, which was October 19, 2022, we have created a five-step primer to help guide legal practitioners through understanding gender identity, using proper personal pronouns, and acting with best etiquette practices for interacting with LGBTQ+ clients and colleagues.

1. Know the Lingo

It’s impossible to properly respond to issues and topics involving gender identity without first understanding the terminology. Below are some essential terms and definitions that lawyers need to know in this area.

  1. LGBTQ+: LGBTQ+ is an acronym that means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer” — the plus sign is used to recognize the limitless orientations and identities within the LGBTQ+ community. While there are other acronyms and umbrella terms that are used, this one is well accepted to use any time you are discussing the broader community, such as, “It is important that lawyers address issues facing the LGBTQ+ community.”
  2. Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation is the emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction persons have to other people. Examples include gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and queer. The terms “sexual preference” and “homosexual” are generally disfavored for indicating choice and pathology, respectively.
  3. Gender Identity: Gender identity refers to a person’s psychological identification of gender, or their concept of self. It is their innate sense of self. Types of genders include non-binary, man, woman, and agender.
  4. Gender Expression: Gender expression refers to how a person expresses gender. This can be done through outward appearance, behavior, clothing, and characteristics. Someone’s gender identity may be different from how you perceive their gender expression. It is hard to know what someone’s gender identity is based on their gender expression.
  5. Pronouns: Pronouns are, literally, words that are used to replace nouns. When pronouns are used to refer to people, they also describe that person’s gender identity. Types of pronouns include they/them, she/her, he/his, and ze/zir.  Like a name, you cannot know someone’s pronouns without them, or someone else, letting you know.
  6. Sex Assigned at Birth: Mostly everyone is assigned a sex at birth, generally male or female, indicated with a “M” or a “F” on their birth certificate. This is known as a gender marker.  The gender marker decision is generally based upon observable physical and physiological characteristics, such as external reproductive anatomy and sometimes chromosomes.
  7. Transgender: Transgender, or trans*, is a descriptor that refers to persons whose gender identity and/or expression is different than the normative, societal expectations of the sex that they were assigned at birth. For example, someone who was assigned female at birth, but whose gender identity is man or non-binary, may identify as transgender. Many words have been used in place of transgender that are considered highly offensive and derogatory now, such as transsexual, transgendered, shemale, and tranny.
  8. Transition: When someone who is transgender begins the process of socially aligning their gender expression with their gender identity, this is referred to as “transitioning.” Transitioning is different for every person, and it can include some, all, or none of the following: gender affirming surgeries, hormone treatment, legal name change, gender marker correction, vocal coaching, counseling, wardrobe changes, telling friends and family of their gender, and using different pronouns.

2. Be Intentional

The introduction to the diverse range of orientations and identities within the LGBTQ+ community can be unfamiliar and confusing. Beyond the understanding of what different pronouns are and how we use them is the application of this knowledge in day-to-day interactions and transactions. With so many pronoun and gender identity options, how do you know which pronouns to use for a person?

Firstly, be intentional with how you choose to address and communicate with a person. You should never assume that a person’s pronouns or gender identity is knowable by their gender expression, sex assigned at birth, and/or sexual orientation. You may find pronoun indicators in an email signature or a name tag, but this isn’t always available.

It is appropriate to simply ask for a person’s pronouns; however, this information may be sensitive, and, sometimes, this is not information that a person is willing or open to share. A more passive, yet welcoming, technique is to share your own pronouns. Consider opening a conversation with your name and your pronouns, without any expectation of a similar response back. Hopefully, they will respond with their name and pronouns, too. If someone does not willingly share their pronouns, do not insist that they do; they may have a very good reason for not wanting to share that information with you or in that particular setting.

Finally, if you’re still unsure of which pronoun to use, proper etiquette is to be gender neutral, by using they/them pronouns, or to use the person’s name, unless notified otherwise. Gender neutral terms are abundant and inclusive. The table below lists various gender specific descriptors with their gender-neutral counterparts.

Gender Specific

Gender Neutral




Significant Other





3. Respect Pronoun Use

Once a person has shared with you which pronouns to use, respect the decision and consistently use the proper pronouns throughout your interactions. This includes pronoun use in conversations, emails, documents, and filings.

However, please note that some people may not want everyone to know their gender identity. They may feel comfortable using certain pronouns with you, but may not feel comfortable using those same pronouns in other settings. For example, a non-binary colleague of yours may want friends in the office to use ze/zir pronouns for them, but when interacting with clients, would prefer the use of she/her pronouns to prevent gender discrimination. Gender discrimination occurs when a person is discriminated against, by being treated differently or worse by experiencing acts of violence, because that person’s gender expression and gender identity do not appear to be the same. Using our previous example, your non-binary colleague whose gender expression is feminine may have experienced gender discrimination in the past, such as client bias or refusal to work with a non-binary attorney. When in doubt, check in with the person.

4. Advocate

When representing a client, advocate for their proper pronouns. If representing before a court of law, consider filing a Notice of Pronouns as a way to notify the court and other parties in your case of your client’s pronouns and honorifics.  You can also consider incorporating pronouns in a case management order. Openly address your client with the proper pronouns and help defend your client when the improper pronouns are used by others.

Advocacy outside of the courtroom is equally important — make sure your firm or organization uses inclusive language, internally and externally. Use the proper pronouns on transactional documents and in communications. Additionally, ensure inclusive language is used on intake forms, LGBTQ+ interests are considered in non-discrimination policies, restrooms have non-gendered options, advertisement and marketing language is inclusive, and LGBTQ+ training is conducted.

5. Mistakes happen — respond to them respectfully then move on.

When a pronoun mistake happens, because it will, do not dwell on it. Proper etiquette is to address the error, respond respectfully to correct it, and move on in the interaction. Treat it like you kicked someone under the table: do not over apologize such that the injured person must make you feel better, but apologize promptly and ensure that it does not happen again. It is good practice to practice, especially outside the presence of the person whose pronouns you have messed up.

This article is published in collaboration with the NCBA YLD D&I Committee as a part of the YLD’s Diversity Awareness Campaign, which is devoting a platform to highlight diverse attorneys and law students, share personal experiences, foster diverse conversations, and promote diverse backgrounds in the profession. If you’re interested in becoming an author and joining the Campaign, please sign-up. If you have any questions relating to this article or would like more information on these topics, please reach out to the NCBA Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and YLD Diversity & Inclusion Committees.

Collins Saint is an Associate Attorney with Brooks Pierce, where she advises and litigates on behalf of public and private educational institutions and school boards on an array of education law issues, including special education and disability issues, civil rights laws, and tort claims. They are Chair of the NCBA Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee, Secretary of the NCBA Young Lawyers Division, and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Personnel and Policy for the ABA YLD.

Elizabeth “Brooks” Savage is an Associate Attorney with Matheson & Associates, PLLC, where she practices business, administrative, and intellectual property law in vice industries. She Co-chairs the NCBA YLD Diversity & Inclusion Committee and is a member of the disability and LGBTQ+ communities.