Yale Daily News

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and a larger battle against sexual misconduct in the legal community, 12 law school women’s groups — including two at Yale — have vowed not to accept any funds from law firms that prevent employees from filing lawsuits against their employer.

Yale Law Women, the Yale Law Women of Color Collective and 10 other women’s associations at top law schools released a joint statement Monday condemning mandatory arbitration agreements. A mandatory arbitration agreement — often signed when a prospective employee accepts a position — requires employees to bring complaints against their employer before a specified neutral arbitrator that is typically hired by the company, as opposed to settling the dispute in court. Depending on the employer-employee contract, these claims can range from sexual harassment to wage discrimination disputes.

In the statement, the groups promised to “no longer accept funds from any law firm that requires employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements … or refuses to disclose in future surveys whether or not they do so.”

“Fundamentally, we feel that all employees should have the right to redress any issues that arise in the workplace in whatever forum they want,” Yale Law Women Advocacy Chair Samantha Peltz LAW ’20 told the News. “Really all we’re asking for here is that they not be barred access to one avenue for seeking relief for the claims of things that happen in the workplace. When you boil it down to that level, it’s a pretty simple ask. It doesn’t seem like much, and we’re hopeful that big law will agree.”

Peltz and Yale Law Women Professional Development Chair Sarah Levine LAW ’20 emphasized that the Monday statement from women’s law groups is significant because of how Yale Law Women and similar groups at other institutions receive their funding. While Yale Law School partially funds the affinity group, it also largely relies on big law firms for “the vast majority” of programmatic funding, Levine explained. Oftentimes, the group holds workshops or recruitment events with firms that financially contribute to its operational costs. According to Levine, the association received funds from 12 law firms this past summer.

“It’s not unfair to say that we could do a very small percentage of the things we do without the money that we get from law firms,” Peltz said. “That’s why this is an important step for us and why it has an effect on what we might do as an organization.”

The Monday statement also mentioned Yale Law Women’s commitment to including questions about employment practices, such as mandatory arbitration, in its annual report on gender equality and family friendliness among law firms. Every year, Yale Law Women publishes this report online in order to “monitor trends in family friendliness among law firms ranked in the Vault 100,” according to the group’s website.

The joint statement also noted that the groups will expand their advocacy beyond just legal associates and encourage firms to eliminate all mandatory arbitration practices, which harm women as well as other underrepresented groups.

“We are eager to use our tenure to publicly disavow employers whose policies structurally disadvantage the labor force’s most vulnerable employees, including women, people of color, gender nonconforming individuals, individuals with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community,” the statement read.

But this was far from the first time Yale students and administrators have acknowledged injustices rooted in mandatory arbitration practices. According to Levine, students from law schools across the nation joined together to draft a letter last spring expressing their opposition to mandatory arbitration and explaining why they believe the practice is unfair to employees.

In May, 50 law schools across the country — Yale included — sent a survey to all member firms of the National Association for Law Placement regarding their arbitration and nondisclosure provisions in their full-time and summer associate employer agreements. The survey — which was ultimately completed by 187 employers — stated that it aimed to act as “a mechanism for employers to provide information to students on employer policies and practices for the upcoming recruiting and hiring season as students assess their career options.”

Kirkland & Ellis, the world’s highest-grossing law firm, abolished its arbitration requirements for associates and summer associates last month. The announcement came just a week after the Harvard Law student group Pipeline Parity Project launched a campaign urging students to reject offers from the firm until it eliminated mandatory arbitration agreements. Monday’s joint statement from law school women’s groups praised the Pipeline Parity Project’s “enormous efforts … to call out recalcitrant employers.”

Following the release of the Monday statement, advocates opposing mandatory arbitration agreements told the News that they are hopeful for change.

Molly Coleman, an organizer with the Harvard Pipeline Parity Project, told the News that the group was “thrilled” to see the joint statement. She said the statement demonstrates the power of collective action and sends a message to employers that students are paying attention to the issue and will not let it be “swept under the rug.”

“We’ve been working with students from across the country for months now, but it’s really inspiring to see [that] so many different organizations are willing to put something on the line here,” Coleman said.

Alyssa Peterson LAW ’19, who has also advocated against mandatory arbitration, said she is glad that the statement is bringing light to the issue. Peterson noted that the attention around the statement creates a “really valuable opportunity” for the public to pressure firms, which is “critical” for eliminating the practice of mandatory arbitration.

According to a 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute, 53.9 percent of nonunion private-sector employers have mandatory arbitration procedures.

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu