Nonattorney employees at Kirkland & Ellis will no longer be required to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, amid pressure from law students who say such arrangements disproportionately hurt women and minorities.
“The Firm Committee has now also determined to extend that policy so that the Firm will no longer require arbitration of any employment disputes that may be brought by any employee who is not an attorney,” reads in internal firm memo obtained by Law.com. (A law firm spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the change.)
Kirkland’s reversal on mandatory arbitration on Thursday for nonattorneys comes three weeks after it did away with such agreements for summer associates and associates, and a month after students at Harvard Law School’s Pipeline Parity Project called on classmates to boycott the firm during the upcoming summer associate recruiting season. The group says that the agreements are coercive and eliminate the ability of employees to sue over workplace violations such as harassment and discrimination.
The Harvard Women’s Law Association put additional pressure on Kirkland, informing it in November that the group would no longer accept $25,000 annually from the firm to be the primary sponsor of its spring conference as long as it required any employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements. The group released a statement in late November that said eliminating mandatory arbitration only for associates and summer associates still left others vulnerable.
Association president Isabel Finley cautioned Friday that Kirkland’s latest announcement still does not specify whether partners and of counsel are required to submit to mandatory arbitration, which is a key issue for the group.
“While I’m very glad to hear that nonattorney staff will no longer be subject to these provisions at Kirkland & Ellis, I am disappointed that today’s announcement remains silent on the status of these provisions for partners and counsel,” Finley said. “Unfortunately, the ways in which law firms have sought to enforce these contracts against partners in gender discrimination suits seem to continue to be overlooked in this conversation.”
Finley said the association stands by its position that it will not accept funds or promote employment at Kirkland or any other firm that requires attorneys or employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements.
“While partners obviously have an income and earning potential that give them far more power than the average American worker subject to mandatory arbitration, their ability to vindicate their equal rights in court is nonetheless critical to ensuring women can go as far as men in their careers,” Finley said.
Sidley Austin announced it was doing away with mandatory arbitration for all employees shortly after Kirkland found itself in the crosshairs of law student activists, while the students have moved on to target DLA Piper with a #DumpDLA campaign. (DLA Piper has defended its use of mandatory arbitration, saying it can be beneficial to both parties.) Meanwhile, women’s groups at more than nine top law schools have pledged to forgo funding from firms that either use mandatory arbitration or do not disclose whether they do so.
Student organizers with the Pipeline Parity Project hailed Kirkland’s latest move as a step in the right direction, but said they will continue to monitor the firm and its application of the new policies.
“There’s a clear consensus emerging in big law that forced arbitration is bad for workers and bad for businesses, and we’re glad that Kirkland has followed the path taken by Sidley,” said Pipeline Parity Project organizer Molly Coleman. “They’ve recognized that if a policy isn’t good enough to subject attorneys to, it is not morally defensible to subject nonattorney staff members to the same policy. We hope that lawyers at Kirkland, Sidley, and others will consider their moral responsibility to not enforce these types of coercive contracts on behalf of their clients as well.”