Another Big Law firm is backing away from mandatory arbitration agreements for employees amid renewed pushback on the provisions from a Harvard Law School student group.
Sidley Austin said Wednesday that it will no longer require summer associates, associates or staff to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that prohibit them from suing over workplace issues such as harassment and discrimination.
Sidley’s move goes further than Kirkland & Ellis, which last week dropped such agreements for summer associates and associates, but did not say it was abandoning the practice for staff. Kirkland was directly targeted by the Pipeline Parity Project, a coalition of Harvard law students that aims to end discrimination in the legal profession. Employing the Twitter hashtag #DumpKirkland, the group urged classmates to boycott the firm during the upcoming summer associate recruiting season unless it did away with mandatory arbitration, calling such agreements coercive.
Sidley’s decision to follow suit is notable because it did not come under specific threat of a student boycott. The Pipeline Parity Project warned last week that it would target other firms using mandatory arbitration, but had not announced any action targeting Sidley.
“We’re really pleased that firms like Sidley Austin recognize that dropping forced arbitration is the right thing to do for all of their employees,” said Pipeline Parity Project organizer Vail Kohnert-Yount in a statement announcing the change. “Hopefully, the lawyers at these firms will also rethink compelling these types of coercive contracts on behalf of their clients, because it’s obvious that forced arbitration impedes access to justice.”
Sidley did not specify its reasons for ending mandatory arbitration in an announcement that the Pipeline Parity Project circulated on Twitter on Wednesday, saying only that it revised its policy. A Sidley spokesperson confirmed the change but did not provide further comment on the reason for the reversal.
Now leaders of the student group have already set their sights on DLA Piper, unleashing a new #DumpDLA campaign on Twitter the same day it scored a win with Sidley. Project leaders said in an announcement that the firm is requiring incoming summer associates to sign mandatory arbitration agreements.
“It’s unclear why DLA Piper is still forcing arbitration agreements on their lawyers, summer associates, and likely also their non-lawyer staff,” the announcement reads. “Forced arbitration agreements effectively require employees to sign away their right to seek redress in court if they experience illegal treatment at work.”
The firm on Wednesday issued a statement justifying its use of mandatory arbitration.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to every type of dispute resolution process,” the statement reads. “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.”
Like Kirkland and Sidley, DLA Piper did not respond to a survey that students from 14 elite law school circulated last spring, seeking to determine the extent of mandatory arbitration agreements for summer associates in Big Law and legal organizations. Fewer than half of the surveyed firms and organizations submitted responses, and the Pipeline Parity Project has urged law students to stay away from firms that either said they use those agreements or that do not disclose their policies.
The movement against mandatory arbitration took shape in March when a Harvard lecturer revealed that Munger, Tolles & Olson required summer associates to sign them. The firm quickly reversed course after an outcry among students.