The older lawyers came into the legal profession at a different time. Biglaw isnt the same thing it use to be in the 70's 80's. Very different.
BIGLAW was still BIGLAW...regardless of the time. Everything is relative when it comes to the financing of law school and lawyering. Back in the day, law school was cheaper and wages were lower for new associates, but cost of living was also considerably lower. If you take a look at the trends of wages for first year associates and compare it to the rising cost of law school, you'll see that market wages are increasing to match the cost of LS. BIGLAW in DC and NY are offering a starting salary of $160k + a $30k bonus = $190k. Even if AU grads aren't super competitive in BIGLAW (many of them are), the rising market rate for BIGLAW still affect the starting rate for MIDLAW firms.
It's simple economics. If top firm A has raised their billable rate from $500/hr to $600/hr, then mid firm B is going to raise as well. It's a simple trickle down affect. Much like your leading markets for law are NYC and DC, cities like Baltimore, LA, Miami, SF are beginning to up starting salary to become more attractive and competitive to graduates. Supply and Demand my friend. Even MIDLAWS are offering a salary package of $130-150k now.
So yes, American is expensive...but the opportunites that abound from there are endless. Whether it be private, public, Gov't, NPO or whatever - DC is one of the best cities in American to network for law students.