I'd rather do shitlaw and learn real litigation skills than take up one of these "career associate" positions. These positions will create a caste system of the have and have-nots within firms. The highly-coveted junior associates will still make $160K -- possibly more given that the firm has lowered the number of those positions. The "career associates" will be stuck in a rut with no skills.
John, Morten, and All -
Excellent points. The biglaw path, always narrow, has become almost a single-file trail.
A slightly different take on the above: For litigation especially, the actual practice of law is not the same as having a fancy office. In point of fact, a new associate at the run-of-the-mill DA's, PD's, or JAG office will get MUCH more actual "experience" than most other new associates. Clearly, as Morten states, the biglaw path is different in its approach, and for those lucky few, the skills for those who survive are fine-tuned to a great degree. This is not, however, the end of the story. Highly paid lateral positions are available (i.e., will be made) for experienced and good practitioners. This should not be seen as the antithesis of biglaw (i.e., fecal-law). Again this is most readily seen in litigation. Spend a few years in any of the above offices--plus a real dedication to the craft--and to a large degree the biglaw question is moot. The firm will come to YOU. (Note: it might actually be a top regional or even local firm one finds most attractive, rather than a national one. There's a good discussion of this in Law School Undercover
Even in transactional work, it's easy to lose sight of the real value to a firm, which includes both law (meaning how to actually practice it) and network. A law partner once said something rather disparaging about government lawyers, as if they were a sub-species. While, on average, the government attorney might not have the same drive or even ability as the average biglaw attorney, this is very much a more nuanced question--and a revolving door. Much of the missing equation--sorry to nag-- is actual quality. In each world, the competent (and incompetent) are well known. The stars (and truly bad) moreso. Do not think for a moment that your colleagues (and potential future employers) won't know.
The irony is that, once one does become good at a practice, the lure of a traditional law office is often attenuated. Among many other factors, those overhead issues Morten mentions--plus the office headaches and much lower job security as a partner--can lead a successful pratictioner to wonder what the real attraction is.
That written, yes, yes, it is almost imperative to find a
law office in which to start--the more real the better.