I think part of the answer is what schools are saying more and more - work for a while first. For my case, my UG degree was as silly/useless for jobs as they get. And honestly, I didn't have office skills/maturity, contacts, resume, numerous things that would make me ready to hire, or at least ahead of the rest of the crew, even coming from the right school high up. Sure, some firms might have hired me in a good economy anyway, but from where I'm at now, I can make a less-guesswork decision. I have a career of some years, have climbed to a nice level/salary. So ideally even if there are zero law jobs, I can get back into the industry (non-profits) that I've been it at at least as high, very possibly higher level. There are specific areas in non-profs where JD's are real added val. Also, I have contacts in terms of either getting clients or getting into law firms.
For those of us who will pay our own way, I think this is what you would want barring sizeable scholarships to a high-ranked school. Mathmatically, from what I see in my current field, the added degree/credential would be worth about an extra 30K-70K per year or more in my current field, not to mention more sastisfying positions. Also, with the resume I have and the specific skills I have (have overseen research programs, worked with clients extensively, etc.) it makes a bit more sense for a firm to take a chance on me maybe than someone else.
I don't say this to talk about my case really, but to suggest this is why schools suggest working for a while first. On top of having realistic understanding of what expenses/salaries are, you aren't starting from 0$/0 experience/0 contacts. Also, you have more realistic understanding of what work will be like, so don't go from never having worked an 8-10 hour day to the sort of ass-kicked whining you hear about big law, etc. You have a feel for what that means, as well as for what you will be looking to accomplish when there that will lead to a useful career path.
I find it amazing that firms ever considered people with no WE worth 160K - it was just part of a bubbled-era I guess. I could see the value of a top law student starting somewhere 70-90ish max, at a very big firm that thinks they'll stay a while. Someone with signficant WE, maybe 100Kish. But for the most part I'd imagine expect what you would from any career, starting not so high, but having significant ops as you move up - IF you are any good. In my career, I started with what I thought was great money in an entry position at about 30K (little less.) That didn't mean I'd earn 30K for the next ten years, or even five. The bumps come, slowly at first, then less slowly, then you get in a position where you can push/bargain a bit. It took all of about 2 years to increase my salary about 80%. Another 2 1/2 years to increase it another 50-60%ish. Then 4 years to bump another 3040% ish. All of the bumps came as a result of me being successful and having ops come up to bargain from. Long and short, about 1 decade to more than triple my starting salary.
Again, I don't say this to tell my story, but to give some perspective on what starting salary means - it doesn't mean what you will earn in 5 years, or even any resemblence to it necessarily.
One last thing - I agree with above poster about saving - another reason to work first. If you work a few years and have, say, 20-20-25k in the bank, you have your loan payment covered for 1-2 years. That is no small thing. That gives you a couple pressure free years to start out your career. If you are not someone whose parents will pay tuition/help if disaster strikes, and you don't get a big scholarship to your chosen school, a delay to take this route might be worth it. Just ask yourself, would you be as panicked if you had a 5 -year resume/field you came from, some contacts/knowledge of the working world/fallback options, and 30K in the bank?