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Law Students Raise Concerns About Firms’ Summer Agreements

Harvard Law School.
A group of Harvard Law School students recently wrote an open letter calling for the school to ensure that law firms who recruit on campus “protect the rights of their employees” to come forward and seek legal action if they “experience harassment, discrimination, or workplace abuse.”

The letter stated that several law firms that recruit summer associates from the Law School have recently begun requiring new hires to sign mandatory arbitration agreements along with non-disclosure agreements.

Further, the letter said these agreements “cover all employment-related claims between the employee and the firm,” which include complaints of both sexual harassment and discrimination that are prohibited by Title VII and other civil rights legislation.

Students laid out specific policy changes they would like to see the Law School implement. For one, they want the Office of Career Services to require employers who recruit on campus to remove the mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure agreements from their contracts.

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The letter also calls for the Law School to create and distribute “an anonymous workplace climate survey” for students who return from summer employment.

Attached to the open letter is a petition that has garnered 281 signatures at the time of publication. The petition lists a goal of 300 signatures.

Molly M. E. Coleman, one of the letter’s organizers, said in an interview Thursday that the issues were first raised by a lecturer at the Law School who found out firms were asking students to sign these agreements.

“Ian Samuel, who was a lecturer at the Law School, broke the news that Munger Tolles, which is a major law firm based out of L.A., was asking their summer associates to sign mandatory arbitration agreements,” Coleman said.

Coleman said they realized this was not an isolated incident, and their “serious concerns” about the impact of the agreements led a group of students to organize on the issue.

“It became clear that there were a number of law firms that were asking their employees to sign these agreements,” Coleman said. “We don’t know how many at this point, nobody knows.”

Sejal Singh, another organizer of the letter, pointed to the particular salience of law firms requiring summer associates to sign mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure agreements in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which sparked national conversations about workplace harassment.

“The fact that this happened right after #MeToo is a signal to us that this is a way that firms are trying to cover up sexual harassment,” Singh said.

Singh said he and other students are working with other top law schools to address this issue.

“We’ve been working with students at Georgetown, Berkeley, NYU, and many other peer institutions,” Singh said.

Coleman also said students have had productive conversations with Law School administrators, including Assistant Dean for Career Services Mark A. Weber, to try to move forward with their proposed changes.

“I’ve been pretty active in ongoing conversations with a number of different people in the administration. We met with Mark Weber… and that was a very positive, productive conversation,” Coleman said. “I think it’s going to take some time. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to see a little bit more movement in the next two weeks, essentially before students head to firms for the summer.”

Weber wrote in an emailed statement that he has met with students who are concerned about these agreements and is working to resolve the issue.

“I understand their concerns, and we take them very seriously. We are examining how to address the issue in our recruiting efforts,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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