Boston — Legal partnerships: protected by laws of privacy and freedom of association, or subject to public scrutiny and federal antidiscrimination laws? The issue was argued Monday before the US Supreme Court in Hishon v. King & Spaulding - a case that civil rights groups and others see as a landmark in the area of sex discrimination.
Involved are hiring and promotion policies, including partnership decisions, of the nation's large law firms. (Employers of 15 or fewer workers are excluded from federal civil rights statutes.) Some say the case also has implications for large brokerage houses, accounting firms, and other businesses set up as partnerships.
Plaintiff Elizabeth A. Hishon has brought suit against a prestigious Atlanta law firm that denied her a partnership and, in effect, forced her to seek other employment. Mrs. Hishon charges sex bias and asserts that large law firms are big businesses and partnership decisions should be subject to discrimination laws, particularly -Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The plaintiff's lawyers say the case has implications not only for women but also for blacks, Jews, and other minorities who, they insist, have been historically excluded from highly paid and prestigious position in law firms. They say that a ruling against Mrs. Hishon will be viewed by women and minorities as the ''Dred Scott case of the 1980s.''
Defendants King & Spaulding - whose partners have included former US Attorney General Griffin B. Bell and Charles H. Kirbo, adviser to former President Carter - argue that government intrusion into partnership considerations violates constitutional protections of freedom of association and privacy. They reject the view that ''the law is just another business.''
They further hold that the offer of a partnership in a law firm is not an ''employment practice,'' as defined by the Civil Rights Act. And they say that the special role of lawyers as advocates for their clients should entitle them to protection against intrusion into their internal business affairs.
Last spring, the Reagan administration joined the case in behalf of Mrs. Hishon. Its position is that law firms should not be ''protected enclaves'' that are immune to civil rights laws.
Solicitor General Rex E. Lee said that associates in a private law office, similar to other businesses, are protected against job discrimination in hiring and promotion. ''The prospect of advancement is a critical element in most employment relationships,'' the government's friend-of-the-court brief said. ''The relationship between associates and law firms is no exception.'' The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department's civil rights division back this view.
The Hishon case was twice rejected by lower courts, which held that partnerships are ''voluntary associations'' and not relationships to which Title VII is addressed. One federal judge compared a partnership to a marriage, writing: ''To use or apply Title VII to coerce a mismatched or unwanted partnership too closely resembles a statute for the enforcement of shotgun weddings.''
In another sex discrimination case decided last July, the US Supreme Court narrowly ruled 5 to 4 that federal law prohibits employer-sponsored retirement plans that give men and women unequal benefits.