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Harvard Law Students Push Major Firm to Drop Controversial Contract Provisions

Langdell Hall houses the Harvard Law School Library.
Langdell Hall houses the Harvard Law School Library. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Aidan F. Ryan, Crimson Staff Writer

After a Harvard Law student-led boycott of Kirkland & Ellis, the law firm announced last week it would no longer require associates to sign mandatory arbitration agreements — contracts that require employees to resolve workplace disputes with employers through an arbitration process, rather than through the courts.

Kirkland & Ellis, the world’s highest-grossing law firm, announced the decision in a memorandum sent to all employees last Wednesday.

“Following a recent review, the Firm Committee has determined that the Firm will no longer require arbitration of any employment disputes that may be brought by associates or summer associates,” the memo stated.

The Pipeline Parity Project — a Law School student group whose mission is “to end harassment and discrimination in the legal profession” — called for the boycott in a statement posted to their website on Nov. 12. The statement included an annotated copy of an arbitration agreement that an associate at the firm was forced to sign this year and told law students to avoid the firm until they removed the mandatory agreements.

“Don’t interview with Kirkland & Ellis until they promise to stop making any of their employees—no associate, paralegal, custodian, or contractor—sign these coercive contracts,” the statement reads.

The Pipeline Parity Project also organized protests at the Law School during the contentious Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh, who taught at the school for roughly a decade. The group called on the school to bar him from teaching and organized a walkout and rally. The school announced in October that the embattled nominee would not return to teach his winter class in January. Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed to the Court.

In their effort to pressure Kirkland & Ellis to remove mandatory arbitration agreements from associate contracts, the student group relied on a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #DumpKirkland.

Alexandra V. Kohnert-Yount, a second-year Law student and member of the Pipeline Parity Project, said she was “pleasantly surprised” that the firm changed their policy so quickly after the boycott began.

“Never doubt that a week’s worth of tweets can make a big law firm change their 10-year-old policy,” Kohnert-Yount said.

Last April, a group of Law students wrote an open letter calling on the school to ensure that law firms who recruit on campus “protect the rights of their employees” to come forward and seek legal action if they “experience harassment, discrimination, or workplace abuse.”

Then in May, Harvard and dozens of other law schools announced that they would require firms that recruit on campus to disclose whether they require summer associates to sign mandatory arbitration agreements or non-disclosure agreements. Those schools then sent a survey to 374 law firms asking whether they require summer associates to sign the agreements; almost half of the firms declined to answer.

Second-year Law student and Pipeline Parity Project member Molly M. E. Coleman said that the Kirkland & Ellis boycott is not the end of the group’s activism on arbitration agreements. Coleman, who helped organize the April letter, said the group is planning to organize protests against other firms with the controversial contract provisions.

“I think that in the next few days there will be more about which ones we plan to target next and which ones we have the most concrete information on,” Coleman said.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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