The founders of the People’s Parity Project are hoping to eliminate harassment and discrimination within the legal profession — and everywhere it operates. “You’re not alone in this.”
“The legal system was designed to cover up sexual harassment and make it impossible for working people to come forward.”
— 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.”
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