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Women’s Law Associations Condemn Controversial Agreements, Praise Harvard's Pipeline Parity Project

Harvard Law School Library
Harvard Law School Library

A coalition of women’s law associations from law schools across the country announced Monday that they will no longer accept funding from law firms that require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, and praised the work of Havard Law's Pipeline Parity Project on the issue.

The Pipeline Parity Project, a Harvard Law School student group focused on ending harassment and discrimination in the legal profession, executed a successful boycott of the world’s highest grossing law firm, Kirkland & Ellis. After receiving pressure from the group, Kirkland & Ellis announced it was ending mandatory arbitration agreements — contracts that require employees to resolve workplace disputes with employers through an arbitration process, rather than through the courts — for its associates.

In a statement Monday, the boards of women’s law associations, including the Executive Board of the Harvard Women’s Law Association, praised the Kirkland & Ellis boycott.

“We, the 2018-2019 boards of women's law associations at law schools across the country, applaud the enormous efforts of the Harvard Law students to call out recalcitrant employers, and we celebrate their success,” the coalition wrote in a statement.

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The boards also wrote about why they felt it was important to speak out, highlighting how the controversial agreements disadvantage the “most vulnerable employees,” including women, people of color, and BGLTQ individuals, among others.

Weeks after Kirkland & Ellis agreed to amend their policies, the Pipeline Parity Project has moved on to pressuring law firm DLA Piper to drop their forced agreements.

DLA Piper — one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world — does not appear to be as willing as Kirkland & Ellis to drop their agreements. Quoted in a Law.com article, the firm said that they find arbitration to be “fair and efficient.”

“There are advantages and disadvantages to every type of dispute resolution process,” the firm’s statement reads. “It has been our experience as a firm that arbitration is a fair and efficient way to resolve internal disputes, and one that benefits all parties in what are often sensitive matters for everyone involved.”

Second-year Law student and Pipeline Parity Project member Molly M.E. Coleman said the group was disappointed with DLA Piper’s statement, but members will continue to pressure the firm, especially given the support from women’s law associations across the country.

“We’ve had a ton of support from people in the broader legal community who were likewise alarmed by DLA’s response and we’ve had an outpouring of support here on campus so we’re very confident that this campaign will continue to push forward,” Coleman said.

Though the group has started a second boycott, they have not completed the Kirkland & Ellis campaign, according to second-year law student and Pipeline Parity Project member Alexandra “Vail” Kohnert-Yount.

“The Kirkland campaign is sort of ongoing because they haven’t actually dropped forced arbitration for their no-lawyer staff — they haven’t totally capitulated either,” Kohnert-Yount said.

While the other law student organization signatories pledged to refuse funding from the law firms whose practices they are trying to change, the Harvard Women’s Law Association wrote in a footnote to the letter that it is not changing its policies on accepting funding at this time.

“We are currently reviewing our sponsorship offerings and requirements, and expect updated guidelines before the start of the 2019-20 fundraising cycle,” a footnote in the coalition’s statement reads. “However, given the size of our organization and board, as well as our interest in further considering how to address sponsors using mandatory arbitration in contracts for non-attorney staff, partners, and counsel, we are not announcing full policy changes at this time.”

The group added that it “wholeheartedly supports the values and policies outlined in this letter.”

Harvard Women’s Law Association president Isabel P. Finley did not comment directly on the coalition's statement, but pointed to her own recent statement on the Harvard Women’s Law Association’s website.

In her statement, Finley announced that “an overwhelming majority” of the association’s board voted to relinquish Kirkland & Ellis’s sponsorship of their annual spring conference. Finley wrote that the law firm gave $25,000 to the association annually — making it the organization’s largest sponsor — in exchange for the conference sponsorship.

Finley articulated this decision in a letter to Kirkland & Ellis on Nov. 14 — prior to the law firm’s announcement that they were discontinuing mandatory arbitration agreements for associates.

Finley wrote that even though her organization is “thrilled” about this change, the discontinuation of the agreements does not go far enough as the policy only applies for associates and not all employees.

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

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