Of course for most people it is more than an economic decision. If practicing law is what they want to do for the next 30 or 40 years then $100 or $200k is not that much money, especially if paying that money means the difference between going to a decent school and being able to get a job or not.
I think you see here what the issue is. It's as if there is no difference betweeen 100K or 200K in debt. A few years back, articles were written not able to understand how people could handle $80K in debt. Now, eh, 100, 200, what's the difference. There's this credit mentality that has people, once they get above a certain level of 'can't afford', just willing to climb endlessly - and so tutions have spiked taking advantage of that. This is how the housing market went - one day, people are haggling between $175K and $190K, a couple years later, prices are so overblown people are haggling between $1.1 and 1.2 mil. The value of $15K vs 100K hasn't changed, but it's just something that happens as numbers get beyond reasonability - people just say, what the heck, it's all more than I'll have anytime soon, 1.1 mil, 1.3, whatever - when what is in between is possibly all they should really be borrowing.
Just like with housing the general idea is that it is better to buy than rent applies that it is better to have a good law degree than a poor one, but like when I went to buy a house a few years ago the market was so overpriced that there is no good decision to make. I would say just get the best degree you get a good scholarship for, but then again, having the right degree is more important than ever with competition worse than ever. I've done a more than a bit of hiring - and being hired - and when you get that resume with the right school on it, you almost automatically interview the person, and you do view them differently - and honestly, they tend to come better prepared/qualified. You get a boost in chances to interview and desire to hire you. Also, getting beyond entry jobs - there is a cieling for many jobs. To break through from mid-level to top-level, you have to interview with Boards or Administration or Partners, and from my experience, they basically all went to the right school, and they still talk about it and it does matter where you went. It is like a closed fraternity/sorority. I just saw a person with very little experience in the field, who sucked A$#$ and was an abysmal person, get a senor level job wit one of the top non-profits in the country - with only a few years of non-profit experience. Why? They had a USC JD, and in this town, that's balls.
So it all depends on career goals. For me, I either want to obivously be a lawyer straight out, but also have the option to run a non-profit, using the experience I have. If I can combine my experience with the right law degree, I can very likely get to run a non-profit/move up quickly at a law firm. From my experience, if I get a medium-grade degree - that's what my career will be.
Fortunately the math may be a little kinder to me - with my background, adding the right JD can instantly bump my already solid salary easily another $30-50K a year, or more. Of course, who knows what the economy will do, but senior-level non-profit positions will exist somewhere, and running one pays more. So I'd say a min of $15K takehome extra per year out of the gate, likely more, not to mention a much better career role - and all o fthis just as a backup if going straight into law doesn't work out. It's still not pleasant to do that much debt, nor reasonable, but for me at this point in my career, the math seems to be there.
And just to hit one last point I briefly mentioned above - going to the right school does apparently prepare people better. It's not just about being able to better get the interview, or having that name on your resume. There usually is a reason those schools have those reps - they tend to turn out people who are better prepared/truly a step above.