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.

8 thoughts on “THE U OF C’s BIG LEAP FORWARD

  1. gTown’s allows clerkships, in that you can defer your entrance to the program until after you’ve done a clerkship.

    Also, at Georgetown, it’s not a cap, your benefits just dwindle away as you go above it.

    It’s nice that it’s spreading to other schools, but you shouldn’t pretend like UC just came up with some amazing new program and therefore unique and stupendous. Georgetown has been doing LRAP for years (since the 90s, I think) with basically this structure, though until a year ago, the income cap was much lower.

    But good on UC.

    • At Georgetown, what happens to a graduate’s loan repayment obligations during his/her clerkship? I think the combination of clerkships (and other broadly defined public interest possibilities), an $80,000 income maximum, and the exclusion of all spousal income are important to U of C’s claims of superiority. But I agree that Georgetown deserves credit for an important and valuable program.

  2. Oh god.. you dont fully understand this program. It is not on the same level as Harvard, Yale and Stanford’s programs. This program depends on federal IBR(and all or nothing deal) while the other’s do not. Essentially, it just pays your IBR payments. This helps you if you do IBR employment all 10 years following graduation but if not you are screwed. With the programs at Harvard and Yale you can enter and leave eligible employment at any time without worrying about penalized by negative amortization(these programs pay your actual loans not the IBR minimum payment). In addition, Harvard and Yale programs cover a much wider range of employment. Basically, the UChicago program is something of a smoke and mirrors thing. All of the schools with programs that force IBR participation have similar deals. I.e. Georgetown with a $75K cap, Michigan with a cap of 150% of the GS-11 rate(comes out to $88K), etc.

    • I understand the negative amortization aspect for those who leave IBR employment. Some schools don’t have that recapture requirement for less than 10 years’ service; there are other potentially significant differences among programs. Students are well-advised to consider how any specific loan forgiveness program is likely to work for their particular circumstances.
      For example, Harvard requires student repayment contributions on a sliding scale for graduates earning more than $44,000 annually. ( Similarly, Yale’s contribution threshold annual income level is $60,000, plus an additional contribution requirement for spousal income above $40,000. ( Stanford requires student contributions for federal adjusted gross income amounts exceeding $50,000. ( U of C has an $80,000 income maximum and does not take into account personal assets or spousal income, but other provisions could make it less generous than other schools’ programs, depending on individual circumstances. Each student should run their own numbers and assumptions through the programs they’re considering.

    • I think there are two benefits of the Chicago program over the Georgetown program. First, it allows allows judicial clerks to use the program. Second, it offers people 10k if they leave the program after 5 years. But I do not think the 80k hard cap at Chicago is better than Georgetown’s soft cap of 75k. Georgetown’s programs offers the same benefits if you make up to 75k. After that, as with many other programs, the benefit decreases. Government attorneys on the GS scale will definitely exceed the 80k cap within 3-5 years, as would many at NGOs. At this point they would be kicked out of the Chicago program with some serious negative amortization. Whereas under the Georgetown program you will continue to get benefits. Furthermore, I am pretty sure the Georgetown LRAP program does not take into account your spouses income in determining eligibility.

  3. gTown excludes spousal income so long as they file taxes separately, which only leaves the clerkship question. My understanding is that people doing clerkships are allowed into the program after they graduate, but you’d have to ask the office to make sure. (I’m a gTown student, not clerking). So the only possible difference between the two programs is the clerkship, and a $5000 higher “cap,” though at gTown it’s not a cap, just a number where the benefits start to phase out.

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