It's tempting to look at practicing lawyers from DePaul, etc, and think "oh they did fine" but it's really important to realize that they entered the legal market at a very different time.
Take the Class of 1991. This is a good sample because (a) we have data for them, and (b) they are now senior and experienced attorneys in their early-mid 40s, but still went to school in roughly contemporary times. They had the USNWR rankings, the T14 existed, etc.
If you look at page 3 of this data: --LinkRemoved--
These folks paid about $32,000 in tuition over the three years from 1988-1991.
Now, extrapolating that data for people who will start school next year (are applying this year) and you can estimate a total tuition of about $127,000.
Meanwhile, let's look at starting salaries.
Class of '91:
Class of '06 (salaries today aren't much if at all higher because they've flat-lined in the recession):
Don't just look at the stated medians, but look at that big hump near the bottom. That's representative of the starting salary at small firms. It's moved up from about $30k in 1991 to about $45k today.
Now compare the debt loads. The Class of '91 guy will have a monthly student loan payment of about $440. Your monthly payment will be about $1540.
Does your increased salary cover the difference? Of course not. Assuming say 25% taxes, their take-home was about $1875/mo, minus $440 in loan payments, leaving them with $1435/mo. Your take-home will be about $2800/mo, minus $1540 in loan payments, leaving you with $1260/mo.
That doesn't seem like a huge difference until you realize that the former is denominated in '91 dollars. $1435 from '91 has the buying power of about $2250 today. There is a big difference in lifestyle between having $1260/mo to cover your rent, food, etc and having $2250/mo.
Re: life-ending, I wouldn't go that far. If you can get a job at a small firm (though that's a big 'if' in today's economy) you will at some point start making more money. It's just that the previous generation of lawyers graduated and even after servicing their debt they were making livable money. That's just not true anymore.
I would note that the same is really true for big lawyers. That guy from C/O '91 bringing home $85/year was probably taking home a bit more, adjusted for tax brackets and student loan payments, as the guy from C/O '09 making $160k/year.