In 1959, under the leadership of its farsighted dean Edward Levi, the Law School created the Floyd Russell Mechem Prize Scholarship, awarded to entering law students and renewable in their second and third years. The scholarship's annual stipend-which in 1960 was $2,000-handily covered the cost of tuition, making the Mechem Scholarship one of the first three-year full-tuition merit-based scholarships offered by any top-tier law school.
In creating the Mechem Scholarship, the Law School was recognizing the same phenomena that principally underlie the new David M. Rubenstein Scholars Program: First, that top law-school candidates might be encouraged to choose the University of Chicago Law School over other schools with a generous financial offer; and second, that freedom from law-school debt might permit those top candidates to more readily pursue their highest career aspirations.
Unlike virtually all of the scholarships offered by the Law School then and since then, the Mechem Scholarship was financed primarily through the Law School's general fund, not by gifts from alumni and friends of the Law School. In its early years, the scholarship covered not just tuition but other expenses as well, and for more than 30 years, its stipend was regularly increased to continue meeting at least the full cost of tuition. But with so many other demands on the Law School's general-purpose funds, over time both the number of Mechem Scholarships and their typical dollar amount were reduced.
The number of Mechem Scholarships awarded each year ranged from eight to one. Among those who received them are current U.S. Court of Appeals Judges Danny J. Boggs,'68, and Douglas Ginsburg, '73; former Court of Appeals Judge Michael McConnell, '79; and Wachtell Lipton partner Andrew Nussbaum, '91.
Mechem Scholars Reflect
Conversations with five graduates who were Mechem Scholarship recipients show how well it achieved its purposes, providing an important incentive for top prospective students to come to Chicago and enabling them to make important career choices without debt as a major consideration. When Stephen Curley, '69, became a Mechem awardee, the stipend covered his tuition and his room and board expenses. Curley, who is now a partner at Mintz Levin, remembers, "The Mechems were in a class by themselves at the top law schools. The amount I received, over $3,000, was a huge stipend at the time. There was no way I was going to turn that down, so I came to Chicago."
Carol Rose, '77, whose teaching career includes more than 20 years at Yale Law School (she now divides her time between Yale and the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law), recalls, "I was choosing among several prestigious law schools when I learned that I had been awarded a Mechem. It was not just the money that tipped the scales in Chicago's favor, although that was very important. I also felt that Chicago really wanted me."
James Hipolit, '76, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Irex Corporation, and David Litt, '88, a partner in the Tokyo office of Morrison & Foerster, both say that their scholarships enabled them to attend law school without having to draw on their families' modest financial resources. Hipolit's father was a public-school teacher; Litt's breadwinner mother played in the symphony orchestra in Portland, Oregon.
Freedom from debt permitted many Mechem Scholars to pursue opportunities that might otherwise have been closed to them. Noting that he first ran for elected office less than five years after graduating from the Law School, Richard Cordray, '86, who is now Attorney General of Ohio, says that with a typical graduate's debt load he probably would not have been able to afford to enter that early electoral race. Hipolit, who took a job with the U.S. Department of Energy shortly after graduation, observes, "The Mechem gave me the freedom to take that job, a freedom I wouldn't otherwise have had."
Litt and Rose both found themselves able to take a year off during Law School to pursue activities that enriched their personal lives and their careers: Litt studied Japanese intensively, while Rose served as associate director of the Southern Governmental Monitoring Project of the Southern Regional Council.
All of the Mechem interviewees say that they are glad to have chosen Chicago. As Stephen Curley puts it, "Chicago was a great law school then, just as it is now. I wasn't going with a second-best option just for the scholarship money. I got a great education that has served me well."
And each of them has shown their appreciation by giving back to the Law School. "The Mechem made me a donor," says Rose, who has contributed to the Law School every year since she graduated. "The Law School gave me a fabulous, one-of-a-kind helping hand, and I'm happy to reciprocate."
David Litt says that as he makes regular gifts to the Law School, he feels as though he's "barely paying the interest on what the Mechem and a Chicago education were worth to me."
Richard Cordray remembers that every day as he went to class he would see the portrait of Lloyd Mechem that hangs in the Law School's main corridor, and he would sense the lineage of brilliant scholarship and great teaching connecting him to the very beginnings of the Law School. Now, Cordray says, "I like to think of my donations as a similar act of continuity that will make a difference for the future of other law students."