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HLS Affinity Group Severs Ties with Firms that Use Mandatory Arbitration Agreements

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Harvard Law School’s largest race-based affinity group will sever ties with private law firms that require their employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements.

The Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association announced in an Aug. 21 statement to its members that it will be notifying “specific firms” that APALSA “will not be offering them access to APALSA members through formal sponsorship.” The list of affected firms was compiled using employment data collected by the Law School’s Office of Career Services, APALSA justice committee Co-Chair Louis Lin wrote in an email.

In a statement, the organization wrote that it hopes “this policy will encourage law firms to eliminate mandatory arbitration agreements.”

Mandatory arbitration agreements in job contracts stipulate that employees who believe their employers have violated their rights cannot bring claims to court. Instead, their claims must go through third-party, private arbitrators, which critics say tend to vastly favor employers.

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In March 2022, Congress passed a law that prohibits employers from mandating arbitration for sexual assault or harassment-related disputes.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that HLS students have protested the hiring practices of private law firms. In 2018, the Pipeline Parity Project called for a boycott of law firm Kirkland & Ellis over its use of arbitration agreements. Two weeks later, Kirkland & Ellis announced that it would no longer require the agreements.

APALSA’s statement referred to the new “firm responsibility policy” as their justice committee's “first step” and said the organization has been exploring the possibility of “collective action” with other Law School affinity groups to “maximize” the policy’s impact.

“This is phase one, and with new laws being passed and introduced on mandatory arbitration, we believed it was vital to take steps ourselves too,” Lin wrote in an email. “We are considering other metrics and plan to work with APALSA members to figure out our next steps.”

Lin declined to comment on the specifics of the committee’s conversations with other groups on campus.

Third-year HLS student Shashank Vura, an APALSA member, said he is “unequivocally” against firms that require arbitration agreements, but that as “people’s professional interests are so entangled with these firms,” he would like to see more opportunities for general members to give input on potential expansions of the firm responsibility policy.

“With the majority of APALSA’s membership going to big law firms, they deserve to have a say in this policy if it expands significantly,” Vura said.

Per the statement to its members, APALSA “welcome[s] the general body’s feedback, questions, and concerns.”

The justice committee in the 2022-23 academic year had also considered severing ties with law firms that had been identified by the group Law Students for Climate Accountability as having negative climate impact or those that had engaged in Supreme Court advocacy “incompatible with [APALSA’s] commitments,” according to a policy draft obtained by The Crimson.

Climate and sustainability has become a focal point in recent years for Harvard Law School student activists. In 2020, dozens of Harvard Law School students disrupted a first-year student recruitment event held by law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP to call on the firm to drop oil and gas company ExxonMobil as a client.

According to the organization’s Aug. 21 statement, APALSA has “implemented changes” to its fundraising approach to ensure that the firm responsibility policy “will not affect [its] annual operating budget.” According to Vura — the organization’s former Membership Chair — APALSA’s budget “exceeds 100,000 dollars annually” and “mostly comes from law firms.”

“We believe that, as the largest race-based affinity group on campus, APALSA can play a leadership role at HLS and beyond in promoting justice, inclusion, and fairness within the legal profession,” the organization wrote.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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