Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Venable Next For Students Pushing To End Forced Arbitration - Law360

Harvard law students are advocating job candidate boycotts of law firms requiring forced arbitration of disputes. They have been successful in doing so. The same should be done in other industries as well.

Forced arbitration basically means that employers can force you to a kangaroo court that favors their enormous resources and leaves you with zero leverage. This removes all the brakes on their bad behavior, which happens with surprising regularity, Law360, Boston (February 4, 2019, 2:42 PM EST) -- Following successful campaigns to convince Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Sidley Austin LLP to end mandatory arbitration at their firms, a group of Harvard law students is now urging peers to boycott Venable LLP, calling the firm's "jaw-dropping" policy “among the most egregious examples of forced arbitration” in a social media campaign Monday.

The Pipeline Parity Project wants law school students to #DumpVenable due to the arbitration policy, asking them not to interview with the Washington-based firm and asking student groups at law schools throughout the country to refuse Venable sponsorships. In addition to slamming the policy itself, the Harvard students accuse Venable of lying to incoming summer associates last year. When 50 law schools sent out a survey last June asking firms about their arbitration practices, Venable said incoming associates would not be subject to mandatory arbitration, according to the group. “But just weeks later, on July 17, 2018, Venable partner G. Stewart Webb Jr. announced in a firmwide email:

‘The firm has adopted a mandatory arbitration provision that will be applicable to all Venable personnel,’” Pipeline Parity said in a statement. One of the group’s organizers, second-year law student Molly Coleman, told Law360 Monday “deceitful is a nice word” to describe the abrupt about-face. “It’s quite problematic, they are using forced arbitration to impede justice,” Coleman said. “There are limitations on discovery explicitly listed in the policy ... We have read a lot of these policies. Venable's was jaw-dropping.” Coleman noted that disputes stemming from allegations of harassment, retaliation, age discrimination and wages and rows under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and the Fair Labor Standards Act are pressed into arbitration, among others. “There is essentially no claim you can bring that would not fall under this policy,” she said. The limitations on discovery include allowing a maximum of 20 interrogatories and three depositions lasting no longer than seven hours. “Maybe there are claims you can prove with that,” Coleman said, “but that makes it a lot more difficult.”

The Venable email asked that the arbitration policy remain confidential and that the documents not be released outside of the firm, according to Pipeline Parity’s statement, which added “we don’t think the fact that Venable forces its employees into arbitration should be a secret. (Nice try, though.)” A representative for Venable did not respond to a request for comment Monday morning. The firm is the latest in a series of Pipeline Parity social media campaigns, some of which have proved successful in achieving the group’s objectives. The online push began in mid-November with Kirkland & Ellis, which dropped forced arbitration for associates just before Thanksgiving and expanded the new policy to all employees and staff in early December. Sidley Austin told Law360 in late November it would change its own forced arbitration policy.

Other firms, such as DLA Piper, have resisted the online pressure. In a November statement, DLA Piper told Law360 it would continue to use arbitration, which it called “a fair and efficient way to resolve internal disputes and one that benefits all parties in what are often sensitive matters for everyone involved." A DLA Piper representative said Monday the firm's earlier statements on the issue remain current. Using social media pressure to encourage change in the legal industry has been a relatively successful phenomenon in recent years. Munger Tolles & Olsen LLP released its employees from forced arbitration contracts last March and issued an apology less than 48 hours after a Harvard Law School lecturer posted part of a summer associates agreement on Twitter. Around the same time, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP announced it would no longer require forced arbitration agreements.

Coleman said Pipeline Parity has been getting an overwhelmingly positive response from law students and from some firms, including one she said called her last week to let her know they would drop forced arbitration for associates and look into expanding the change to all employees. “It feels like there is this growing movement in the legal community to say ‘there is a problem with forced arbitration,’” Coleman said, stressing that Pipeline Parity also wants firms to stop enforcing these so-called coercive contracts on behalf of their clients. “That’s what makes firms like Venable and DLA Piper seem like such outliers when everyone is moving in one direction,” she said. In addition to the law school survey, Law360 carried out its own survey last year asking the top 100 U.S. law firms about their sexual harassment policies. Of the 18 firms that responded, seven said they have not required any of their employees to sign arbitration or nondisclosure agreements that would apply to sexual harassment allegations.

--Editing by John Campbell.

See this link: https://www.law360.com/employment/articles/1125070