Understand, I would force people to use this calculator from a desire to do good.

The University of Michigan Law School has created something beautiful. It’s a tool forged by the explosive union of “facts” and “math.” It’s a vision of a future where law students actually know what they’re getting into before they go to law school. It’s not perfect, but I feel as if I’ve just looked up at the first light on the fifth day, and seen something brilliant.

Yes, I spent all day playing with the Michigan Law Debt Wizard.

As we mentioned this morning, Michigan Law has a new tool that points students towards “11,000 possible [debt] repayment paths.” And most of them are God-awful.

Because Michigan Law is just trying to tell you the truth….

The Michigan Law Debt Wizard is a calculator. You put in three factors: type of practice, region of the country, and expected law school debt. The Debt Wizard then tells you how much money you are likely to have left over after you service your debt and pay for housing in your region, across a scale of various salary levels and debt repayment options.

It’s easier to explain when you see it. Below, I use my information (I graduated with about $150K in debt and was initially on a 25-year repayment plan) as if I were currently planning on going to Michigan Law and have my old job back at Debevoise. I’ve moused over what it tells me for my expected “discretionary” income assuming I make $160,000 a year. As you can see, it’s a manageable situation (click to enlarge):

So I’d be doing pretty well, with more than $4,000 a month to spend in New York City after rent and debt. That’ll keep me in chicken and waffles for a while.

But here’s how the situation changes if, say, I want to be a writer in New York City (click to enlarge; note: this is not my actual salary, but a fair kind of mid-level salary in the New York market; I do a good deal better than this, thanks readers).

Yep, after rent and debt, a mid-level blogger’s salary would leave me in the negative if I still wanted to live in New York.

Now while all this information might be obvious to anybody who has actually been through law school, the numbers up in charts and graphs with BIG RED NUMBERS are helpful for prospective law students. For instance, how many prospective law students say something financially indefensible like, “I don’t need to make a six figure salary, I just want to do public interest law in a secondary market.”

Well, now there’s a graph for that (click to enlarge):

Clocking in $1,300/month in Detroit before you’ve even bought a sandwich is better than making negative $500 in New York — and better than a lot of people living in Detroit do — but it’s no picnic, especially after seven years of post-high-school education.

Moreover, and here’s the important thing, this calculator does not take into account whether or not you actually can get a job at the salary level you so desire. Are there public interest jobs in Detroit that pay $50,000? Are there more than one of those jobs? If you get that job, does it come with a gun to defend yourself from all the Cooley Law grads who would gladly stab you and steal your opportunity?

This problem is important because we know from the bimodal salary distribution curve that there simply aren’t a significant number of jobs paying anywhere from about $65K to the low-six figures. Either you make $160K (or the top of your market) or you bust out.

One could imagine doing this type of calculator for every accredited law school, plotted against each law school’s employment statistics so when you mouse over, it also shows the “probability” of you making the listed salary.

It’s a weakness with the calculator, but I’m not inclined to fault Michigan — the first law school to do this that I’m aware of — for the fact that some people using it will not be able to understand what it is saying. At some point, prospective law students have to be trusted to select numbers from a drop down menu and not be too stupid to understand the results.

Honestly, if you select a lifestyle for yourself that involves you making $94 a month after housing and debt, and you say, “Pfft, I’ll just get a roommate,” or, “I don’t mind eating ramen every night,” somebody should punch you in the testicles/ovaries until you acknowledge your stupidity. I can only imagine prospective law students searching for the “break even” point where the graph goes from red to black, without understanding that there are other things to buy besides shelter.

Hopefully, people smart enough to get into Michigan are smart enough to understand the results of this wizard. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need a “debt wizard” to tell people that law school is a bad bet unless you have low debt or a high post-graduate salary, but we’ve long since missed that exit on the value proposition highway.

Michigan here is taking a great step forward in terms of law school transparency. It’s like they understand that you have to make things obvious for people who are inclined to believe that they are the special snowflake who will beat the odds.

You could make something even more useful than this, but this should at least be the starting point for all law schools.

Michigan Law Debt Wizard [University of Michigan Law School]
Michigan’s ‘Debt Wizard’ offers law students a glimpse of their futures [National Law Journal]

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