The premise of the television programme Suits relies on a New York law firm so élitist that it only hires Harvard Law School graduates, and rejects all other applications.

In real life, would this be legal under New York and federal law, or would it be indirect racial discrimination, given that Harvard Law School graduates are less Black and Hispanic (and more White) than the United States at large?

  • HLS graduation can probably be a bona fide occupational qualification.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 21:52
  • 2
    @ohwilleke I suspect there's a reason this would be legal, but BFOQ is usually treated as a pretty narrow exception, isn't it? I can't imagine many judges buying the argument case that a Yale graduate cannot get the job done. (Unless it's an HLS judge)
    – bdb484
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 21:55
  • 1
    @bdb484 In this narrow fact pattern I think it would win even though BFOQ is usually very narrow, a bit like you can say if hiring a Yoga instructor that you will only hire someone who has trained under XYZ guru.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 21:57

2 Answers 2


That’s legal

The New York Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination on the basis of “age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, marital status or disability”.

Federal law prevents employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability and genetic information (including family medical history).

What law school you went to is on neither list.

If Harvard’s policies break the rules, that’s not the firm’s issue. However, AFAIK, Harvard is scrupulously fair in their admissions program - so long as you have the grades and the money, they’ll let you in. It’s not Harvard’s fault that most of the people who get the best secondary education and have the most money are predominantly white, Christian, and US born - that’s do to politico-social-historical-economic factors beyond Harvard’s control.

  • This answer ignores disparate-impact theory, which is what OP is almost explicitly asking about.
    – bdb484
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 21:35
  • @bdb484: Is it safe to assume that you downvoted my answer as well for the same reasons?
    – sharur
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 21:46
  • @sharur Roughly the same reasons. Your answer does not completely ignore disparate-impact theory, but it fails to meaningfully address it.
    – bdb484
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 1:29

This is legal.

Discrimination, under US federal and state law, is only illegal if it is on the basis of one or more specific, enumerated protected characteristics (such as race, sex, religion, national origin, etc).

Additionally, Havard's demographics vs the general population's is not the correct test to use, because they are not hiring from the general population. They are hiring lawyers (or law school graduates, it's been a while since I watched the show, but I don't recall the firm requiring its hires to pass the New York bar exam before being hired), so one should instead compare Harvard's graduation demographics to the national breakdown of law school graduates.

Note that while there is a movement to recognize "indirect discrimination" (where non discriminatory policies have unequal effects on protected groups), there are "safe havens" for discrimination for necessity, such as in following other laws or regulations. Most any law firm will have a not-demographically representative selection of lawyers, because lawyers must have been admitted into the local(State) bar(meaning an organization of lawyers, by passing a test), and that pool is usually also "less Black and Hispanic" than the general population.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .