A year after public outcry began over law firms’ use of forced arbitration as a condition of employment, law students around the country are stepping up the pressure on legal employers who continue to make use of these coercive contract provisions.
Forced arbitration clauses, often hidden in the fine-print of employment contracts, require employees to sign away their right to sue when they experience illegal treatment at work, like sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or wage theft. These provisions are often accompanied by nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) that prohibit employees from speaking publicly about harassment and discrimination they experience at work. Employees are thus left to bring claims in a secretive, private arbitration process that is stacked in favor of large companies.
On Tuesday, students launched an open letter calling on the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) to add two questions to its Directory of Legal Employers: one inquiring into the firm’s use of forced arbitration and NDAs for summer and first-year associates, and one asking whether the firm requires any non-lawyer employees to sign a contract containing forced arbitration or an NDA.
Following student pressure campaigns in the spring of 2018, over 40 law schools conducted a survey of the employers who recruit on their campuses, asking that they voluntarily disclose their policies surrounding the use of forced arbitration and non-disclosure agreements. However, over half of the surveyed firms refused to disclose their policies and so law students are urging NALP to use its influence to collect and disseminate this information.
According to James Mayer, 3L at New York University School of Law: “It is difficult for students to get essential information every year from law firms about their use of these coercive practices. NALP is uniquely positioned to gather and distribute this information to law students, allowing us to make informed decisions about our futures.”
Also on Tuesday, students in Boston and Washington, DC, took their fight against forced arbitration directly to law firms by distributing leaflets on the harms of coercive contracts in front of Venable LLP and DLA Piper offices. Venable LLP and DLA Piper have both been targets of recent student pressure campaigns led by the Pipeline Parity Project, based out of Harvard Law School. Despite the growing consensus that forced arbitration hurts workers, DLA Piper has proudly stood by the practice. Meanwhile, Venable LLP has refused to acknowledge their use of forced arbitration, despite the fact that their employment contract was made public earlier this year by student organizers.
Lane Shadgett, 1L at Georgetown University Law Center, said that students felt they had no choice but to take this step: “Firms like Venable and DLA Piper need to know that we will continue to hold them accountable for their behavior. Today, by physically showing up at their offices, we are doing our part to make sure that both current employees and students who aspire to work there know about their use of forced arbitration, and how it deprives them of their rights.”
With today’s developments, it is clear that the pressure to end law firms’ use of forced arbitration and NDAs will not be abating anytime soon. With recruitment season in full swing, and on-campus interviewing for 2020 positions beginning in just a matter of months, law students are doubling their commitment to ensuring that no worker is forced to sign away their rights as a condition of employment
Says Sarah Bayer, a 2L student organizer at Harvard Law School, “NDAs and forced arbitration unfairly silence victims, allowing bad behaviors to persist. No one wants to work in an environment where illegal conduct goes virtually unchecked. Identifying employers that use these coercive contracts is an important first step toward rooting out abuses in the legal industry.”
- The Growing Use of Mandatory Arbitration: Access to the Courts is Now Barred for More than 60 Million American Workers, Economic Policy Institute, Alexander J.S. Colvin
- Forced Arbitration Clauses in the #MeToo Era, Center for Popular Democracy and the National Women’s Law Center
- Female Law Students Pressure Firms to Stop Banning Sexual Harassment Suits, Vox, Alexia Fernández Campbell