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Harvard Law Students Push to Reform Law Firms’ Contracts for Incoming Associates

Langdell Hall houses the Harvard Law School Library.
Langdell Hall houses the Harvard Law School Library. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Connor W.K. Brown, Crimson Staff Writer

Students from Harvard Law School’s Pipeline Parity Project and other law students across the country continued their campaign this week against mandatory arbitration clauses — provisions of employment contracts that require employees to settle disputes through a private arbiter rather than bringing their concerns to the courts.

Following the group’s success in lobbying law firms like Kirkland & Ellis and Sidley Austin to drop their mandatory arbitration policies in December 2018, the student organization turned their efforts to firms DLA Piper and Venable with site visits in Boston and Washington, D.C. this week.

The Pipline Parity Project also sent an open letter Tuesday to the National Association for Law Placement — an organization providing advice and information to those looking to work in the legal profession — calling on them to publicly disclose whether law firms use mandatory arbitration clauses.

“We are law students who are deeply concerned that many law firms require their employees to sign forced arbitration agreements with non-disclosure provisions as a condition of employment,” the letter reads. “We hope that NALP will use its influence to collect and disseminate this information, which is critical to us as we make important decisions about our futures.”

Sejal Singh, a Law School student and one of the open letter’s authors, said recruiting procedures for some law firms make students susceptible to signing arbitration clauses when firms do not disclose them early in the hiring process.

“Students are hired for a private sector job, in particular, very far in advance. Once you accept your offer you cannot just go back and find another job if you find out six months later that your employer is going to force you to sign away your right to sue if your rights are violated,” Singh said. “So, of course, we are very concerned about it.”

NALP did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but did acknowledge the open letter on their Twitter account Tuesday, tweeting that they will consider these requests during their upcoming 2020 data collection cycle.

“Our Board of Directors already has this question on their radar and will discuss at their April meeting,” the tweet reads.

Members of the Pipeline Parity Project travelled to DLA Piper’s Boston office Tuesday to hand out leaflets, while law students from Georgetown’s law school visited Venable’s offices in the nation’s capital.

“We had some kind of flyers with information about what these firms are doing and made sure that folks who are going into the offices know about this policy,” Kurt D. Walters, a Pipeline Parity Project member, said.

Walters said some employees at DLA Piper’s office were surprised after reading the materials.

“Basically, the reaction is, ‘why would this company do this?’ And it's a very good question. And I don't think that DLA Piper has a very good answer for why they do this,” Walters said.

Both Venable and DLA Piper did not immediately respond to a requests for comment.

Walters said the Pipieline Parity Project will not end its efforts until they’ve eliminated the agreements at major firms.

“The law students who are looking toward their future careers care about whether they have recourse in an unsafe work environment, and whether their employers are going to create a safe work environment, and this is not going to go away for DLA Piper until they do the right thing,” Walters said.

—Staff writer Connor W. K. Brown can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ConnorWKBrown.

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