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Women at top U.S. law schools renounce firms that don't let employees sue over sexual harassment

Not only are employees overwhelmingly unlikely to be awarded money in arbitration cases, they also tend to win less than in cases involving court trials.

by Carter Sherman
Dec 4 2018, 6:23pm

Women’s groups at some of the most prestigious U.S. law schools are renouncing law firms that forbid employees from suing over issues like sexual harassment and discrimination.

Boards for women’s law associations at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, University of California Berkeley, Stanford, University of Chicago, New York University, and Cornell announced Monday that they would no longer accept money from law firms that force employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements and would not “promote these firms to our members in any way,” according to a joint statement issued by the boards.

“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 non-conforming individuals, individuals with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community,” the boards wrote in their statement. Thirty-five percent of female lawyers experienced sexual harassment in their very male-dominated profession, according to interim results from a survey conducted by the legal research firm Acritas.

The rise of the #MeToo movement has swung a spotlight onto the oft-secret and widely popular practice of arbitration agreements, contract clauses that force American workers to give up their right to ever sue their employers. Not only are employees overwhelmingly unlikely to be awarded money in arbitration cases — a Vox analysis found that employees were awarded monetary damages in 1.8 percent of 8,209 complaints handled between 2013 and 2017 — but employees also tend to win less money than in cases involving court trials.

More than half of all non-union, private-sector employees in the United States have signed mandatory arbitration agreements, according to a September 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute.

The law school boards’ statement follows a campaign by the Pipeline Parity Project, a group of Harvard law students fighting to end harassment and discrimination, to push Kirkland & Ellis — one of the largest law firms in the country — to stop requiring its employees to sign arbitration agreements. One week after the Harvard Women’s Law Association dropped Kirkland & Ellis as its spring conference’s primary sponsor, Kirkland announced that its associates and summer associates would no longer have to sign such agreements.

Cover image: Yale University students gather around the Women's Table, a sculpture that marks the 20th anniversary of women on the New Haven, Conn., campus, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court due to allegations of misconduct. (Catherine Avalone/New Haven Register via AP)

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