June 19, 2024

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Built General Tough

Meet the Four Harvard Law Grads Taking on the Entire Legal System

— Sejal Singh, a founder of the People’s Parity Project


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On a brisk morning in October 2019, a group of students from top U.S. law schools gathered outside the offices of the corporate law firm DLA Piper in Washington, D.C. They handed out leaflets decrying the firm’s mandatory arbitration policy, which had recently stopped a lawyer at the firm from taking her sexual assault claims to court, and called on law students to boycott interviews with the firm until it promised to end mandatory arbitration.

Half an hour in, a woman who identified herself as being from the firm walked outside and told the students she had called the police. A DLA Piper spokesman, Josh Epstein, said the firm had “no knowledge of any such interaction.” The police never came, but the students say the confrontation was telling. Corporate law firms aren’t typically the targets of boycotts.

The protesters who stood outside DLA Piper’s offices are part of a new legal labor movement hoping to eradicate sexual harassment in the legal profession. They were organized by the People’s Parity Project, a group founded by four women at Harvard Law School with the aim of eliminating mandatory arbitration provisions and ending what they describe as the legal profession itself allowing harassment of and discrimination against workers.

The founders of the PPP — Molly Coleman, Emma Janger, Vail Kohnert-Yount and Sejal Singh — had been in law school for less than two months when sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein, reported by The New York Times, revealed the extent to which legal contracts had been used to keep his victims quiet. This, along with accusations about Alex Kozinski sexually harassing his clerks and reports of corporate law firms requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, raised a big question for the four women: How might they leverage their power as Harvard law students to change all of the institutions that perpetuate legal inequalities across the United States — not just within those institutions, but everywhere they exert power, too?

Within a few years of its founding, the PPP has become a national organization with chapters at a dozen law schools, successfully lobbying several big law firms including Kirkland & Ellis to drop arbitration agreements for staff members, and has gotten funding from progressive groups like Demand Justice and the Center for Popular Democracy. Ms. Coleman is now the organization’s full-time executive director.

Today the PPP is, like many other groups, pushing the Biden administration to hire more progressive lawyers and fill open judiciary spots with noncorporate lawyers. The group published a list of 34 progressive young lawyers it believes should be considered for federal court appointments.

“I think their work has the potential to transform the profession,” said Kalpana Kotagal, a civil rights lawyer behind Hollywood’s inclusion riders. She joined the PPP’s board of advisers after meeting the four founders at Harvard, where she was struck by their willingness to call out “things that officially seem like they’re progress but once you get further are revealed to be a PR scheme.”

The four founders sat down with In Her Words — over Zoom, of course — to talk about the organization’s founding and their vision looking ahead.

The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’re now all law school graduates, and the PPP is a national organization. But you started organizing during your first year at Harvard. Tell me about that.

Sejal Singh: It began in Vail’s and my living room.

Vail Kohnert-Yount: We knew each other in D.C. before law school. We were introduced through a mutual friend who Sejal met on a picket line.

Emma Janger: Everything about us is incredibly on brand, even accidentally.

Singh: Our first year was the peak of the #MeToo movement, and it was extraordinarily clear that the legal system was designed to cover up sexual harassment and make it impossible for working people to come forward about a variety of abuses.

Kohnert-Yount: We all came to law school to do justice, right? And if you’re paying attention in law school, very quickly you realize that law and justice have very little to do with each other. I remember learning in civil procedure at the very end of the semester about tools like forced arbitration. And I was like, “Wait, why did we learn a semester of civil procedure when I might not ever be able to get into court on behalf of the low-wage workers who are my clients?”

Janger: We saw again and again that the law is not neutral and lawmakers are not neutral. So if we were going to take on this system, it wasn’t going to be about vindicating one siloed issue, it had to be about the entire system.

Molly Coleman: We also saw the ways in which law students and lawyers were encouraged to be passive participants in furthering that system. There is an obligation to do more than that.

Singh: The core part of this work is challenging the idea that the choices people make for prestige or for power or for money are morally neutral. There are all sorts of structural reasons that push people into Big Law. Most people have a crushing debt burden. But also it is partly because this work is framed as the good, neutral way to get experience. Chasing power and prestige is not neutral if it means you’re going to kick an Uber driver out of their wage-theft case through forced arbitration.

You were having these discussions in your living room while #MeToo — including the allegations against the very notable Judge Kozinski — was breaking all over the news.

Singh: For a really long time, I thought it was the perfect storm of events, and now that I’ve spent a little more time in the legal profession, I’m not so sure. Stuff like this happens every year. Sexual harassment has been happening in the legal profession since lawyers existed. This is not new, but what is new is that people are more explicitly talking about it.

Janger: It’s not just that Kozinski fell. That’s what got our attention. What was so destabilizing was that everyone knew. As the secret became open, it shaped who applied to clerk for him, it shaped who he fed to the Supreme Court.

A lot of your work is consciousness-raising among law students, but how hard is it to capture their attention with Big Law and six-figure salaries calling, and a mountain of student debt looming?

Kohnert-Yount: We have been known to offer people curly fries…

Coleman: When you’re organizing within the legal community, there’s a lot of fear. There’s fear of not being able to find a job, a fear of not being able to pay off debt, and there’s a fear of being ostracized by the profession because the people who have “succeeded” are those who played by the rules and who might not look kindly on those who push back against the system. One thing we’ve found to be so important is to create community, to say, “You’re not alone in this.”

Singh: I think a lot about how many ostensibly liberal groups in the legal ecosystem rely on corporate funding or have close relationships with corporations. Part of the problem is people haven’t quite seen past their complicity in this system.

Janger: In September, we released our own short list for circuit courts. It was people who are younger, a lot more women, a lot more people of color, a lot more queer people, and to the professional point, there were people who were public defenders, who worked at the ACLU, the NAACP, who worked at much smaller legal nonprofits doing amazing work in their community. There is another form of a legal career that’s possible, that we should consider when we think of what success looks like.

Many lawyers might agree with what you’re saying, but they won’t say it on the record. What do they say to you privately?

Janger: We’ve certainly had students who are wary of blowback. Thinking back to one of our early protests against DLA Piper, people were like, “We’re going to protest… a law firm?” And all of us who have worked in other movements were like, “We’re going to stand outside a building with sheets of paper.” This is not the most dramatic protest, not to undercut our own impact. But there’s so much of a hangup there.

How else have law firms responded to your work and activism?

Coleman: We have a spreadsheet we keep of which law firms use forced arbitration and which ones don’t. If you don’t use forced arbitration for any workers at your firm, you’re green on our spreadsheet. We had a law firm call and say, “Hey, we stopped forcing our associates into arbitration, can we be green now?” And we were like, “Well, do you still have forced arbitration for your nonlegal staff?” And they said, “Yeah, of course.” So we said, “No, you can’t be green on our spreadsheet. Green is for firms not using forced arbitration for any workers.” And they were like, “Oh! Oh. OK, we’ll have to talk about that internally.” The notion that we care about more than just the people with fancy law degrees just hadn’t occurred to that firm as they called to share what they thought would get them good press.

Kohnert-Yount: We also think about all the workers who are affected by the law firms’ compelling forced arbitration on behalf of their clients. We want to fight both. Lawyers aren’t typically taught to think of themselves as workers, but we are, and we know that workers have power. Collective action works, you know!

Coleman: There are people who say, “It’s totally fine to challenge law firms’ use of forced arbitration clauses for their employees, but you can’t go after law firms for compelling arbitration on behalf of their clients.” But we think that when you’re devoting your life to protecting the bottom lines of corporations at the expense of workers, we do get to question it, and we do get to call it out. Our argument is not that no corporation should be able to find a lawyer. It’s that it’s not morally neutral work.

You’re trying to change an entire system. How do you choose what to prioritize?

Janger: It’s easy to say you can’t change the system. But we did already. We have seen firms drop forced arbitration in response to our pressure. Did that change the entire legal profession? No. But did it make the lives of thousands of workers better? Yes.

It also kicked off this movement. It showed us that where we have leverage, we have power.

Kohnert-Yount: If I’ve ever tried to explain forced arbitration to a nonlawyer, they’re like, “Mmm sounds fake. It’s so ridiculous, how is it possibly legal?” And I say: “Wait until I tell you what else is legal! When you democratize the access to information that we’ve learned in law school, people get mad.”

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