A group of Harvard law students aims to pressure Kirkland & Ellis to drop its use of mandatory arbitration for employees by encouraging their classmates to boycott the firm during the upcoming summer associate recruiting cycle.
Organizers of the boycott hope that starving the firm of summer associate prospects at a top law school will force Kirkland to rethink the mandatory arbitration and nondisclosure agreements employees must sign. Those agreements are designed to prevent employees from suing over a variety of matters, including harassment and discrimination.
The #DumpKirkland campaign is the latest initiative from the Pipeline Parity Project—a student group at Harvard that seeks to end harassment and discrimination in the legal profession. The group exposed the widespread use of mandatory arbitration for summer associates by law firms last year, and this fall pushed Harvard Law to address its role in the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a female acquaintance while in high school.
“It’s no coincidence that in the #MeToo era, Kirkland has stuck by forced arbitration, which prevents many victims of sexual harassment and discrimination from getting justice,” reads a statement posted to the group’s website on Monday announcing the Kirkland boycott. “In fact, Kirkland’s forced arbitration agreement specifically names the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and all state human rights and non-discrimination laws as laws that no longer apply to them in a court of law.”
Kirkland is far from the only major firm using mandatory arbitration agreements, Pipeline Project leaders noted. But it’s the largest firm in the world as measured by gross revenue; hence, Kirkland is the largest firm that recruits summer associates at Harvard, they wrote. Project leaders hope that other firms will take notice of the student backlash against Kirkland and do away with their own forced arbitration for employees. (Kirkland did not respond to requests for comment on the matter Tuesday.)
“I think the biggest goal is to force a conversation within the legal profession about why we’re asking anyone to sign away their rights as a condition to employment, said Molly Coleman, a second-year Harvard Law student and Pipeline Parity Project leader, in an interview Tuesday. “These provisions are not justifiable and don’t promote the things we came to law school to promote.”
Coleman added that Kirkland is a high-profile firm that she said has not been transparent with prospective employees about its use of mandatory arbitration agreements, landing it squarely in the project’s crosshairs. But she said she hopes other law firms take note. The Pipeline Parity Project has been in touch with students from other top law schools about #DumpKirkland, and leaders are hopeful that students elsewhere also skip Kirkland when on-campus interviews roll around in August.
Harvard Law’s dean of career services, Mark Weber, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The law school has historically been a fertile recruiting ground for Kirkland and other Big Law firms. Half of Harvard’s class of 2017 took associate jobs at the largest 100 firms in the nation, by attorney head count, according to Law.com’s 2017 Go-To Law Schools Report. Kirkland & Ellis alone hired 13 recent Harvard Law graduates that year. Coleman noted that the school’s career services office is not involved in the Kirkland initiative, although it has assisted in earlier efforts to gather information about the use of mandatory arbitration by the firms that recruit on campus.
Law firms’ use of mandatory arbitration agreements for summer associates was thrust into the spotlight in March, when former Harvard Law lecturer Ian Samuel tweeted out a leaked copy of a Munger, Tolles & Olson’s summer associate arbitration agreement. The firm quickly backtracked amid the backlash and ditched the agreements.
Following that, students from 14 top law schools, including Yale and Harvard, surveyed law firms and legal organizations about whether they require summer associates to sign mandatory arbitration and nondisclosure agreements. The survey was intended not only to determine how widespread the practice is, but to sway the firms to drop those agreements lest they be publicly outed as using them.
But nearly half the firms did not respond to the survey, while five law firms disclosed that they use such agreements for summer associates. (The project maintains a spreadsheet of the survey results here.) Kirkland was among the firms that did not respond to last year’s student survey. The Pipeline Parity Project said it received a leaked copy of a mandatory arbitration agreement an associate was asked to sign this year, and posted the contract on its website. That contract indicates that Kirkland has been using mandatory arbitration since 2008.
“If Kirkland won’t stop its forced arbitration racket—and indeed, won’t even own up to it—it’s up to us to educate ourselves and our peers and take action,” reads the Pipeline Parity Project’s announcement of #DumpKirkland. “That’s why we’re asking all the law students who are headed into recruitment season this year: Don’t interview with Kirkland & Ellis until they promise to stop making any of their employees—no associate, paralegal, custodian, or contractor—sign these coercive contracts.”