A Harvard Law School student organization is trying to discourage law students nationwide from applying for summer associate positions at Venable LLP because of the firm’s use of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements.
The clauses, which, among other things, prohibit employees from suing over harassment and discrimination, have come under fire in the #MeToo era.
On Tuesday, the University of Baltimore School of Law said that while it already advises students about the hiring process, it would raise the topic of arbitration clauses in employment agreements.
“We always counsel students about the hiring process, but in light of these revelations about Venable and the trend that is emerging, we will definitely address the topic in our career counseling process in the months ahead,” said Christine Stutz, a UB Law spokeswoman.
A spokeswoman for the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law declined to comment.
The Pipeline Parity Project, which studies discrimination and harassment in the legal community, started a Twitter campaign called #DumpVenable on Monday to encourage students to boycott the firm by not interviewing there for summer associate positions.
Venable, with nearly 200 lawyers in Maryland, is the second-largest law firm in the state, according to data the firm provided for the The Daily Record’s survey of Maryland’s Largest Law Firms.
The Pipeline Parity Project alleges that Venable last summer said it does not require summer associates to agree to arbitration — but that the firm then distributed a memo saying all employees were subject to mandatory arbitration. The student organization posted a copy of that memo on Twitter on Monday.
“Over the last year, firms around the country have recognized the damage done by policies that require employees to forfeit their civil rights as a condition of employment, and have made the decision to no longer force employees into arbitration,” the Pipeline Parity Project said on its website. “By making the decision to expand the use of forced arbitration at a time when the harm of these policies is clearer than ever before, Venable stands in stark contrast to the growing consensus within the profession.”
A spokeswoman for Venable did not return The Daily Record’s request for comment.
Arbitration clauses are governed by the Federal Arbitration Act and courts increasingly say the statute preempts any limits that states may try to impose on those agreements. The Supreme Court also tends to uphold arbitration agreements, meaning it is up to employers to decide whether they want to include them as part of the package of documents signed by employees, Michael Hayes, a labor and employment law professor at UB Law, said Tuesday.
Arbitration provisions in employment contracts and other agreements are often criticized because the proceedings and their results are kept private, Hayes said.
Mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment claims has been overturned in some cases. Last year, the ride-share service Uber said it would allow sexual assault and harassment victims to sue the company in court instead of redirecting the cases to arbitration.
On the consumer side, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau introduced a rule in July 2017 to prevent banks from forcing customers to resolve disputes in arbitration, but the rule was nullified by the U.S. Senate later that year.
The legal market is revisiting the use of mandatory arbitration clauses, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement. Last week, the American Bar Association House of Delegates passed a resolution urging legal employers not to require mandatory arbitration to address claims of unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation “based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, genetic information or status as a victim of domestic or sexual violence.”
The Pipeline Parity Project has used similar social media campaigns against other top law firms over the use of mandatory arbitration clauses. In November, the group used its #DumpKirkland campaign, which prompted Kirkland & Ellis to drop the practice for its summer associates and associates. Sidley Austin ended the practice without being targeted by the Harvard Law group, according to the Pipeline Parity Project Twitter account.
Closer to home, a campaign against DLA Piper (#DumpDLA) over mandatory arbitration has been unsuccessful, though the Harvard group says it will resume its efforts against the firm — which has about 90 lawyers in Maryland — before summer associate recruitment season, the student group told The National Law Journal.