Law Schools, Student Loans

State Comes Up With Quasi-Indentured Servant Plan For 16 Law Students

Do any of you remember the set up of Northern Exposure? It was a decent enough show where a “city slicker” doctor had to practice in small town Alaska to pay off his student debt. Aidan from Sex in the City was on it.

Anyway, the point was that the state of Alaska paid for Rob Morrow’s medical school. In return, he had to work wherever Alaska sent him for five years.

Subject, of course, to the restrictions outlined in the Thirteenth Amendment, I’ve wondered why this isn’t an actual thing that more states do in order to help underserved communities. Why doesn’t New York pay for a bunch of people to go to medical school, but then they have to practice in poor areas for a term to work off their debts?

One state is giving it a try. And why not? I mean, it’s not really like peonage, is it?

South Dakota has an innovative plan that I’m pretty sure is basically legal. From TaxProf Blog:

On Thursday, South Dakota enacted HB 1069, which provides funding to repay law school tuition to 16 attorneys who agree to work for five years in rural counties in the state. Qualifying attorneys will receive annual payments over the five years of 90% of the resident tuition and fees at the University of South Dakota School of Law on July 1, 2013.

See, it’s not indentured servitude. South Dakota is offering to repay student loans so long as the attorneys work in rural South Dakota. That’s totally different than loaning the students the money and then forcing them to work in backwoods South Dakota in order to repay the debt. Phew!

Now that we’ve gotten around that little technicality, would you be excited or bummed to be a functionally indentured servant to your law school debts?

I’d argue that a ton of lawyers are already working as de facto indentured servants under working conditions far worse than a rural county in South Dakota. What, you think all of these people want to work 100 hours a week in midtown or lower Manhattan grinding through boxes of documents, checklists, and doing other menial tasks?

People are trying to pay off their debts, and people are willing to do lots of horrible things in order to pay their bills. That includes abandoning whatever dreams they had when they went to law school for “just a few years” of a Biglaw grind that often unfortunately turns into a career. Oh, you think you can only work Biglaw for four or five years until you are debt free or whatever, but the clasps on those golden handcuffs are hard to break. The lifestyle, the prestige, the first class business trips — it looks like a job, but feels like a cage.

Of course, the difference between Biglaw and actual “Chinese sex slave” indentured servants is that for lawyers, the cage is just one erected by the mind and enforced by You can put down your Biglaw cross any time, you just have to pick up the burden of owing more money than you make.

Compared to that, the South Dakota program is comparatively easy to get out of. There are no golden handcuffs in rural South Dakota. And the “lifestyle” that these 16 kids get used to won’t require huge amounts of money going forward.

I just wish that South Dakota would offer this program to students who don’t go to South Dakota Law. You could totally make a TV show out of an NYU Law grad who moves to South Dakota to pay off his loans, experiences culture shock, but then learns that the homespun values of the mountain west give him that thing that he doesn’t know he’s been missing his whole life.

State to Pay 90% of Law School Tuition for 16 Graduates Who Work in Underserved Areas [TaxProf Blog]

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