Students at Harvard Law School have launched a campaign urging their peers to boycott Kirkland & Ellis until the firm removes mandatory arbitration agreements from its employee contracts.
On Monday morning, a student-led organization called the Pipeline Parity Project published a copy of a 2018 Kirkland arbitration agreement. In it, associates waived their right to sue the firm in court over a range of employment concerns, including sexual harassment and wage theft.
“Kirkland & Ellis is now the biggest law firm by gross revenue in the world,” Harvard 2L Vail Kohnert-Yount, a member of the Pipeline Parity Project, said in a statement. “That makes it the biggest employer at Harvard Law School to use forced arbitration agreements, a form of coercive contract that requires employees, as a condition of employment, to waive their right to sue their employer for any reason.”
The Pipeline Parity Project, which seeks to combat harassment and discrimination in the legal profession, is asking all law students to refrain from interviewing with Kirkland in the upcoming recruitment season until the firm promises to stop making any employees, including staff members, sign such contracts.
“We’re also asking them to consider how this will affect other people,” Kohnert-Yount told Bloomberg Law. “Do you want to work for a firm that’s asking you and support staff and other employees at the firm to sign away their civil rights?”
Kirkland, which the students said has used these mandatory arbitration agreements for employees since 2008, did not respond to a request for comment.
The firm’s arbitration agreement names a variety of civil rights and employment laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Such agreements have taken on new significance in the #MeToo era, as arbitration generally prevents disclosure of complaints to the public.
Law firms have come under increasing scrutiny over the use of arbitration agreements since March, when Ian Samuel, then a lecturer at Harvard Law, tweeted pictures of Munger, Tolles & Olson’s arbitration agreement. Within days, Munger Tolles scrapped the agreement and Orrick ditched its own soon after.
Later in the spring, a group of more than 40 law school career services deans asked top law firms to complete a survey regarding their use of mandatory arbitration clauses in employee contracts. Nearly half of the 374 Big Law firms polled declined to answer the question, including Kirkland.
“They won’t even admit to using them,” Kohnert-Yount told Bloomberg Law. “If they’re unwilling to do it, we’ll do it ourselves.”
DLA Piper, which also declined to respond to the survey, requires associates to sign an arbitration agreement, according to students with the Pipeline Parity Project. A representative for DLA Piper did not respond to a request for comment.
The students’ ultimate goal is to block any firms with arbitration agreements from recruiting on-campus. “At a minimum, every employer who recruits here should have to answer the survey,” said Kohnert-Yount.
Samuel, now an associate professor at Indiana University, called the #DumpKirkland campaign “brilliant.”
“It’s forcing Kirkland to make a choice,” he told Bloomberg Law. “Keep the clause, and thus stain the firm with a reputation for being ideologically extreme, or dump it.”
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