My thanks to the standing room-only crowd that turned out to hear about my new legal thriller, The Partnership, at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. That delightful town is, of course, the home of a great university that includes a law school worthy of Thomas Jefferson’s pride.

While I was there, it occurred to me that when law schools get it wrong, they deserve the scorn that comes with a public spotlight. When they get it right, they should bask in its warm glow. The University of Chicago Law School recently got it right. Really right.

It’s ironic.  The home of the Chicago School — where free market self-interest reigns and the economic analysis of the law has been an article of faith for a long time — has adopted a loan repayment program that sends students this powerful message:

There’s more to life after law school than pursuing big law’s elusive financial brass rings. If you take the large firm path, do so because it’s what you want, not because you have no other financial options.

This must shock deans who have pandered to the large law firm constituencies that hire some graduates for the best-paying starting associate jobs. Former Northwestern Dean David Van Zandt made himself the most visible and ardent proponent of that approach. The U of C’s new program doesn’t ignore big law as a potential employer of its graduates. In fact, it led all other schools in the NLJ 250‘s most recent list of big firms’ “go-to schools.” But it now tells the country’s top students that even if they don’t want big law, the U of C still still wants them — so much that it will pay their way.

It’s unique. For example, Harvard has a respectable Low-Income Protection Program. In 2008, it went a step farther and announced a plan forgiving third-year tuition in return for five years of post-graduate public service, but overwhelming student demand made it a casualty of the financial crisis. In its place, Harvard now provides limited funds to encourage public interest work on a case-by-case basis. Other schools, including Northwestern, have loan forgiveness programs, too, but none appears to be as good as the University of Chicago’s new one.

A single line from its website description says it all:

“This means that a graduate who engages in qualifying work for 10 years, earns less than the salary cap, and maintains enrollment in the federal Income-Based Repayment Program, will receive a FREE University of Chicago Law School education!”

“Qualifying work” is public interest broadly defined as “the full-time practice of law, or in a position normally requiring a law degree, in a non-profit organization or government office, other than legal academia.” It includes judicial clerkships.

The “salary cap” is $80,000 and doesn’t include spousal income. That combination seems to beat Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. (Caveat: The differences across school programs can be significant and prospective students should consider their own circumstances, run the numbers, and determine which one produces the best individual result.)

The program is a reasoned response to practical realities. First, big law cannot accommodate all top law school graduates, even if deans try to put them there and all want to go.

Second, the burden of law school debt shapes career decisions that lead too many lawyers to dissatisfying careers and unhappy lives, especially in large firms.

Third, the upcoming generation of prospective attorneys wants options other than large firms. To be sure, many lawyers find that such places are a good fit for their personalities and ambitions. But in recent years, such individuals have become a shrinking minority of the people heading in that direction. The profession should encourage attorneys who will become unhappy in such institutions to avoid them in the first place. Imagine a big law world populated exclusively with lawyers who wanted to be there.

Finally, the program is a reminder that the law is a great calling. Law schools aren’t big law assembly lines, grinding out graduates for firms where nobility too often yields to a business school mentality that prizes misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, leverage ratios, and average partner profits — above all else. The best law schools are uniquely positioned to level a playing field that now tilts students toward large firms.

Whatever else they accomplish, the U of C’s actions bring important attention to student alternatives that sometimes get lost in the myopic focus on big law. Now that’s leadership.