The Talent

March 25, 2011 10:00 AM

The University of Chicago's Big Leap Forward

Posted by Steven Harper

Update, 3/27/11, 8:40 pm EDT -  A parenthetical caveat has been added at the end of Paragraph 7 below to acknowledge that loan forgiveness programs can impact students differently, depending on individual circumstances.   

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. Chicago's new program doesn't ignore big law as a potential employer of its graduates. In fact, the school led all others in the NLJ 250's most recent ranking of big firms' "go-to schools." But it now tells the country's top students that even if they don't want big law, Chicago still wants them--so much so that it will pay their way.

That'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 postgraduate public service, but overwhelming student demand led that program to become 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 program announced by the University of Chicago.

A single line from the school's Web site description says it all: "This means that a graduate who engages in qualifying work for ten 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 nonprofit 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.)

Chicago's program is a reasoned response to practical realities. First, the country's biggest law firms cannot accommodate all top law school graduates, even if deans try to put them there and if all the students 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 career options outside of 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 headed 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 want to be there.

Finally, Chicago's 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 mentality that prizes misguided metrics, above all else. The best law schools are uniquely positioned to level a playing field that now tilts students toward large firms.

As the nation's best prospective students absorb Chicago's actions, the pressure on other top schools to follow suit will grow.

Now that's leadership.


Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

Make a comment

Comments (0)
Save & Share: Facebook | Del.ic.ious | | Email |

Reprints & Permissions


Report offensive comments to The Am Law Daily.

The comments to this entry are closed.

By: TwitterButtons.com

From the Newswire

Sign up to receive Legal Blog Watch by email
View a Sample