The firm will no longer require employees to sign a forced arbitration clause as a condition of employment.

Cambridge, MA — This week, high-profile law firm Gibson Dunn announced that it will no longer force employees to sign an arbitration clause as a condition of employment — following months of sustained student pressure led by the People’s Parity Project and LGBTQ+ law students’ groups. Moving forward, all current and incoming employees at the V10 firm will be able to opt-out of arbitration. The change means that employees will now be able to sue and speak out if they face harassment, discrimination, or illegal treatment at work.

Three months ago, as part of a nationwide campaign against legal employers’ use of forced arbitration, fourteen LGBTQ+ student groups at law schools around the country announced that they will no longer accept any funds from employers that require their employees to sign forced arbitration agreements. In a letter to Gibson Dunn, the students argued that discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers, especially LGBTQ+ workers of color, is alive and well in the legal profession — and that they couldn’t in good conscience promote employers as LGBTQ+ friendly when they are using forced arbitration to sweep discrimination, harassment, and other workplace misconduct under the rug

“This is a strong step in the right direction by Gibson Dunn. We know that an opt-out policy puts an unfair burden on employees who might not understand the process or fear retaliation if they choose to opt-out, and we urge the firm to eliminate the use of pre-dispute arbitration entirely,” said Matt Shields, a 2L at Harvard Law School and Co-President of Harvard’s Lambda student group for LGBTQ students. “As law students, we have a responsibility to fight for better workplaces not just for associates, but for all workers. We are happy to see Gibson remove this barrier to justice for survivors of harassment and discrimination.”

“While LGBTQ+ workers are winning our rights in the workplace, employers are using forced arbitration clauses to wipe them away,” argued Sejal Singh, a 3L at Harvard Law School and founding organizer of the People’s Parity Project. “Nineteen percent of transgender people who report being discriminated against at work each year. If a queer worker is harassed for her sexual orientation or a transgender worker’s insurance plan illegally excludes gender-affirming care, they shouldn’t be forced into a black-box arbitration system. We’re fighting to make sure all LGBTQ+ workers can enforce our rights.”

Today, the majority of private-sector, non-union employees are subject to “forced arbitration clauses.” Workers who sign forced arbitration clauses are legally obligated to settle her case before a private third-party arbitrator, who is often hand-picked and paid by the defending company to the tune of $1,000 to $2,000 a day. Arbitrators’ determination is final, binding on both parties, and virtually unreviewable by courts. Workers win just a fraction as often in arbitration as they do in court — and when they do, they get a fraction of the damages. Worse still, forced arbitration clauses are generally accompanied by a clause prohibiting the worker from participating in a class action, making it financially prohibitive to vindicate their rights.

Gibson is the latest major law firm to drop  forced arbitration under student pressure in the last two years. A student pressure campaign led by the People’s Parity Project has pushed  numerous top firms, including Kirkland & Ellis, Selendy & Gay, and Sidley Austin to abandon forced arbitration for  workers at the firms, including associates and non-attorney staff like paralegals and legal secretaries.  Even firms that continue to use forced arbitration, like Paul Hastings and Wilson Sonsini, have moved to allow their employees to opt-out of the policy. The overwhelming majority of BigLaw firms now recognize that they will not be able to recruit top legal talent if they continue to force workers into arbitration if they experience workplace misconduct.

“Forced arbitration allows employers to sweep harassment, discrimination, and other illegal treatment under the rug—hurting women, people of color, and LGBTQ workers most. When employers make arbitration a condition of employment,  they are making clear whose presence they value in the workplace, and whose they do not,” said Elisabeth Campbell, a second-year student at NYU Law and a member of OUTLaw, the law school’s LGBTQ affinity group. “Law students are refusing to work for employers who are unwilling to provide us with the respect and decency in the workplace that we deserve.”

As law students are increasingly using their collective power to fight for justice, legal employers have been put on notice that the next generation of legal professionals will not stand for policies that disproportionately harm women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ workers.

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