Law students from elite universities protested outside DLA Piper offices in three cities Oct. 10, calling on the firm to drop arbitration agreements from employee contracts.
Demonstrators from Harvard, Columbia, NYU and Georgetown law schools handed out leaflets in New York, Washington, and Boston. They’re part of a student-led initiative leveraging their status as top Big Law recruits to fight what they says is “harassment and discrimination in the legal profession.”
While the People’s Parity Project has targeted DLA Piper and other firms in the past over arbitration, this protest was sparked by an open letter to DLA Piper last week from partner Vanina Guerrero, who claims she was sexually assaulted and retaliated against by a fellow partner.
Guerrero said she is unable to bring those claims in court because of a mandatory arbitration agreement.
“Female employees at DLA Piper deserve to know about what happened and have access to court filings during my litigation,” Guerrero said in her letter.
DLA Piper has said it is aware of Guerrero’s allegations and that it has taken steps to investigate them.
A firm spokesman said in an emailed statement on the protests that there “are advantages and disadvantages to every type of dispute resolution process.”
“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 spokesman said.
The parity project and other critics of arbitration clauses argue that they force employees to sign away their rights to sue over illegal conduct like sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and wage theft. Arbitration hearings, which are not public, often favor the employer, according to critics.
“We now know why firms like DLA Piper refuse to give up forced arbitration,” Elisabeth Campbell, a second-year student at NYU Law, said in a statement. “Forced arbitration enables bad actors to cover up and avoid accountability for their gross misconduct.”
A number of firms, including Kirkland & Ellis, have dropped arbitration clauses in the face of student-led pressure.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Circuit City v. Adams that the Federal Arbitration Act applies to all employment contracts, except those for transportation workers engaged in interstate commerce.
As of April 2018, just over half of nonunion private-sector employers were subject to mandatory arbitration provisions, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank focused on low- and middle-income workers.
—With Robert Iafolla