As first-year students at Harvard Law School, Molly M.E. Coleman and A. Vail Kohnert-Yount both attended a “lunch talk” where an attendee brought up the subject of mandatory arbitration. The practice requires employees to solve workplace disputes through an arbitration process rather than through the courts.
Following the lunch, Coleman emailed Kohnert-Yount after she had raised some concerns with the practice at the talk.
“I was like, ‘Hey, you seem pissed about this. I’m pissed about this. Can we get a beer and talk about it?’” Coleman said, recalling their first exchange.
Kohnert-Yount invited other students frustrated by mandatory arbitration and inadvertently sparked a movement that would define much of their three years at the Law School. The People’s Parity Project was born.
Founded in 2018 by Kohnert-Yount, Coleman, Sejal S. Singh and Emma R. Janger, the People’s Parity Project aims to reform the legal profession by working to end harassment, combat injustice, and protect workers’ rights in the legal field.
The organization focuses on ending sexual harassment of workers within the judiciary, as well as eliminating mandatory arbitration clauses from employee contracts. From a small group of Harvard Law students, it has grown into a network with chapters at nine different law schools, including Yale Law School, Columbia Law School, and Georgetown Law School.
Since its creation, the People’s Parity Project has led several campaigns both on and off campus. The group protested the nomination of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, pressured major law firms to remove their mandatory arbitration agreements, and advocated for courts to reform procedures in response to sexual harassment allegations.
Though founders of the People’s Parity Project will graduate from the Law School this spring, the organization will continue to work toward its mission of “a justice system that values people over profits,”as their website reads.
Still, the organization faces obstacles in its mission to give the legal profession an ethical overhaul.
Many law firms and lawmakers continue to support mandatory arbitration agreements as more efficient and harmless alternatives to resolving disputes through the court system. In the wake of the height of the #MeToo movement and in a period of record unemployment in the legal profession, the founders are also seeking sizable cultural shifts in the field of law.
Diane L. Rosenfeld, who teaches a course on gender violence at the Law School, wrote in an email that the People’s Parity Project gives her hope for the future and proves the capabilities of student activists.
“It fills a needed gap in legal services and promises to create a more equal legal profession overall,” she wrote. “The voice of PPP will only continue to grow louder and more important.”
The founders entered the Law School in 2017 not expecting to spend the next several years advocating for judicial reform and employee rights.
Singh said soon after arriving on campus, the group’s founders came to view the legal system as a profession stacked against workers, consumers, and vulnerable populations and in favor of maintaining and increasing corporate power.
“We all came to law school hoping to fight for workers and consumers and for a just economic and social system, and instead we got here and we saw that the law was even more stacked against the people that we plan to represent than we realized,” Singh said.
Janger described two incidents during that year which motivated the group to organize the People’s Parity Project.
The first was the surfacing of sexual harassment allegations against former Ninth Circuit Appellate Court Judge Alex Kozinski, who was considered a “feeder judge” for students hoping to clerk at the Supreme Court.
“What I think really galvanized all of us was that for so many in the legal profession, that was common knowledge — that was an open secret,” Janger said.
She claimed professors at law schools continued to recommend students to serve as Kozinski’s clerks, despite the open secret of the harassment allegations.
The second motivation for the People’s Parity Project stemmed from learning about mandatory arbitration and realizing how frequently law firms required new, young employees to sign these agreements.
Out of a desire to fix these two issues, the founders formed the Pipeline Parity Project.
The organization rebranded as the People’s Parity Project in June 2019 to reflect the wider goals of the project and its growth beyond the Harvard campus.
“We’re fighting for a legal system that puts people on the equal playing field with corporations so that we can actually hold bad actors accountable for putting profits over people,” Singh said.
The People’s Parity Project soon made headlines for organizing a walkout at the Law School on Sept. 24, 2018, days before Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor from California, would testify that Kavanaugh sexually harassed her at a party both attended in high school.
Hundreds of Harvard students donned buttons reading “I Believe Christine Blasey Ford” and called for a fair investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct brought against Kavanaugh by Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who alleged Kavanaugh assaulted her while they were undergraduates at Yale.
Students also protested Kavanaugh’s affiliation with the Law School. The Supreme Court justice served as a visiting lecturer for nearly a decade, teaching classes like “The Supreme Court Since 2005.” Kavanaugh eventually told the Law School in October 2018 that he would no longer teach his class slated for January 2019.
“Nobody had bothered to provide Dr. Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, or Anita Hill with a fair process that took seriously their complaints of sexual misconduct,” Singh said. “We thought it was incredibly important that as young members of the legal profession we take a stand to say this is unacceptable.”
After organizing the walkout, the People’s Parity Project turned their attention toward judicial reform to protect clerks following the allegations against Kozinski. The organization urged the Judicial Conference — the body in charge of workplace regulations within the federal court system — to implement changes to workplace conduct policies such as creating a centralized reporting channel that allows for anonymous reporting of workplace harassment.
The D.C. Circuit Court subsequently reformed its policies by instituting a workplace environmental climate survey and creating an employee advisory group.
“It’s not just the privileged clerks coming out of Harvard Law School,” Janger said. “It’s also the career clerks, the secretaries, the janitors, and so many other employees who work in a judge’s office or in chambers and are left without protection as well.”
The People’s Parity Project recently continued its fight against judicial misconduct when Law School graduate Olivia A. Warren accused federal judge Stephen R. Reinhardt of sexual harassment in her Feb. 13 testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.
“We submitted written testimony as well to that hearing, and have continued to sort of work in coalition with other advocates on this issue,” Janger said.
In addition to its work in combatting sexual harassment in the legal field, the People’s Parity Project aims to protect law students from signing “coercive” employment contracts, which they claim enable law firms to silence victims of harassment and discrimination.
The organization includes mandatory arbitration clauses and non-disclosure agreements, which prohibit employees from publicly discussing harassment claims, under their definition of “coercive contracts.”
“Forced arbitration, like I said, is a legal tool that employers use to sweep misconduct under the rug — from sexual harassment, to wage theft, to denying people pregnancy accommodations,” Singh said.
Coleman said an estimated 56 percent of non-unionized workers agree to these provisions in their employee contracts, but most Americans do not understand what “mandatory arbitration’’ means.
“People don’t even know that they signed away their rights because lawyers use legalese — use these complicated terms and all these opinions that are basically illegible,” she said.
The People’s Parity Project works on several fronts to scrutinize employers who require mandatory arbitration agreements. Most notably, it supports the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, which would ban employers from requiring employees to sign contracts with mandatory arbitration clauses.
In September 2019, the project joined 70 other organizations in drafting a letter sent to the United States House Judiciary Committee in support of the FAIR Act. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill later that month, but the bill has not yet been taken up for a vote in the Senate.
The organization has also directly pressured law firms to remove mandatory arbitration clauses from their contracts. Through tactics such as distributing flyers, circulating hashtags, and calling for prospective applicants to boycott certain firms, it has convinced more than half a dozen companies to alter their contract requirements for all employees.
“Kirkland & Ellis is one of several companies that we forced to drop forced arbitration agreements by putting them on blast — naming and shaming them and helping inform people who might work there — prospective employees — about their potential forced arbitration agreements,” Singh said.
The law firm Kirkland & Ellis dropped mandatory arbitration agreements for non-attorney staff members and associates in late 2018.
The People’s Parity Project also features a list of survey results on its website which tell law students looking to apply for associate positions at one of 374 firms nationwide whether the firm requires mandatory arbitration agreements.
“These firms rely on students to run, and so if we could show that students were outraged about this and weren’t going to go work for companies that were forcing people to sign away their civil rights when you took a job, we knew that we’d have a lot of leverage,” Singh said.
The group’s founders said they believe Law School students have strongly supported the efforts of the People’s Parity Project because the issues they have taken up with directly affect them once they graduate.
“We’re making headway on convincing people that if we, as law students and future lawyers, don’t want to be subjected to forced arbitration, we also have an obligation to not subject others to forced arbitration on behalf of our clients,” Coleman said.
But the People’s Parity Project has encountered its share of resistance in its mission to reform the legal field.
“A lot of our work is challenging kind of established power, and that can be uncomfortable, especially when those power structures have gone very much unchallenged at places like Harvard Law School,” Kohnert-Yount said.
She argued that law schools teach students from a perspective that looks favorably upon corporate power and places less emphasis on workers’ rights — a view opposite to the goals of the People’s Parity Project.
Kohnert-Yount recalled doing a keyword search of the Law School’s course catalog as a first-year student and finding an overwhelming number of classes including the word “business” in their course descriptions, but only two using the word “worker.” A similar search for the 2019-2020 course catalog finds only three courses that include “worker” while 131 include “business.”
“Our education is very stacked,” she said. “Corporate power is baked into our curriculum.”
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an email that the school offers courses and programs that allow students to work in public service.
“With more than 400 courses across a wide range of subjects and 44 pro bono legal clinics and student practice organizations, through which our students donate hundreds of thousands of hours each year to clients in need, Harvard Law School offers every student abundant opportunities to explore their interests and to serve their communities,” he wrote.
Singh stated the organization’s challenge is to change the way students think away from this mindset to a view which values individual employees.
“It’s getting people to realize that living these values means huge changes to the law and really returning power to working people when the law does not do that,” she said.
The People’s Parity Project also faces opposition to its views on mandatory arbitration.
DLA Piper, a law firm currently subject to social media pressure and an applicant boycott by the People’s Parity Project, continues to support its policy of mandatory arbitration.
“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,” the firm wrote in a November 2018 statement.
Similarly, U.S. Representative Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) argued during the House floor debate on the FAIR Act in September 2019 that arbitration provides a cheaper and faster alternative to litigation and actually results in less hostility between the parties and more favorable results for the employee.
“The bill’s proponents advance the idea that arbitration is unfair, coercive, and harmful, but that’s far from the truth,” Lesko said.
Even now, the organization continues to expand and launch new initiatives. This summer, the organization created the “COVID-19 Rapid Response / Systems Summer Institute,” which will pair unemployed law students with public interest legal organizations, including those focusing on unemployment insurance advocacy and studying the racial impact of the pandemic.
This program attracted an estimated 1,600 law students from 27 schools across the nation to the work done by the People’s Parity Project — further broadening the organization’s network.
“There’s such a hunger to do this work that, you know, when people see other like-minded spirits who want to change this system for the better, they reach out,” Singh said.
The summer fellowship builds off the organization’s work connecting with students at other law schools to create additional People’s Parity Project chapters.
The organization now boasts chapters in six states across nine law schools — Columbia, Georgetown, Michigan, New York University, Yale, Washington University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of New Hampshire, as well as its original Harvard chapter.
“We found that there are very few spaces where people are organizing around the issues that we organize around, and so whenever we launch a campaign, we hear from students at other campuses around the country who really want to be involved,” Singh said.
Tamar Hoffman, a member of the Georgetown branch, said her school’s chapter launched in the fall of 2019 and has focused on researching non-compete agreements in contracts for low-wage workers.
“I think that it’s really admirable the way that the project started as thinking about the way in which law students have power and also are impacted by inequalities in the legal profession,” Hoffman said.
Mac McMechan, a first-year law student at the New York University School of Law, said their chapter dedicated its time to lobbying for the EmPIRE Act — a bill in the New York legislature that would allow employees to file a whistleblower suit against employers who violate workplace law.
“It’s a bill being sponsored by various assembly members and senators that allows individual workers and organizations helping them to serve as personal attorneys general and bring forth employment claims, like wage theft or unsafe conditions, as a way to get around forced arbitration,” McMechan said.
At first, the People’s Parity Project expanded to different law schools organically through existing friendships and interested students reaching out to the founders of the organization for ways to get involved. Now, the founders intend to reach out and recruit specific schools they think would add diversity to the organization or that reside in a state crucial to the project’s policy initiatives.
“This year, we prioritized doing outreach to schools outside of the top 14,” Singh said, referring to the top 14 law schools designated by the U.S. News rankings. “It’s really important to us that our organization isn't replicating those elite dynamics.”
The four founders of the People’s Parity Project plan to graduate this spring as members of the Class of 2020. Still, Singh assured the organization would continue its mission and grow “bigger and better” in years to come.
The group will remain on the board of directors and will select new leadership to take over the Harvard chapter. Coleman will also serve as the first executive director of the organization.
Even though the four founders will no longer run Harvard’s chapter of the People’s Parity Project, they all plan to continue fighting for the same values the organization champions in their post-graduate careers.
“There’s little point in our law school education if access to justice is closed. Right? And so we’re here to vindicate our legal education,” Kohnert-Yount said.