Alright, so this thread seems a little stale, but I can't resist. I did three years in biglaw (through the boom and bust) and just left for a federal agency. [I can't believe that now that I have a life again I am posting on a message board, but SO is watching TV. I am a former xoxo reader who checked that board for the first time in years and saw them laughing about this board. I actually like what I see here as it's not as cruel as xoxo, but way more honest than certain other delusional message boards ("you'll get in everywhere you apply").]TL; DR: I agree with OP and several posters above. If you show ongoing commitment to PI, you can go from biglaw to PI, though it will take some work. I'm not familiar with the new NALP rules, but, if possible, do PI your 1L summer and then split your 2L summer between firm and PI. Try to get a PI offer before you have to accept the firm offer. If you don't get PI before you have to accept the firm offer: Do two to three years in biglaw, but stay connected to PI. One year before you want to jump back to PI, start actively applying and inquiring about PI jobs. A bolder person may recommend dropping the firm offer at any time before you start for a PI offer, but such a move requires VERY CAREFUL consideration.
Even ITE, I have seen people jump from biglaw to PI and I jumped from biglaw to the federal government. I have also seen people do the second summer split with PI and land awesome PI jobs before having to accept their firm jobs (those were fatter years though).
I have heard from lawyers at PI orgs and federal agencies that they fear biglaw burnouts just looking for an escape; here are a couple of suggestions to avoid this characterization (nothing here necessairly applies to super-prestigious PI or government gigs like ACLU, SG's Office, a lot of DOJ, USAOs, as well as highly-transferable government gigs like SEC, FTC, FDA, NRC, they expect biglaw people to apply):
- Lay the groundwork for your PI or federal job in law school: Work at a PI org or federal agency 1L year and split your second summer with a similar organization; also use your 2L and 3L years to show interest in PI by doing clinics, pro bono research, PI advocacy, etc. Take classes relevant to your PI/federal job interests and do well.
- With some exceptions, do litigation when you're stuck in biglaw: There are some speciality regulatory practices that translate well into PI and specific federal agencies, but litigation is going to make you most useful to a PI org or random federal agency down the road. As mentioned by a poster above, these organizations don't necessairly want to train you in the finer points of advocacy.
- Do pro bono in biglaw: Every V100 firm pays lip service to pro bono and as a junior you can take advantage of this. True, some firms are rumored to have not considered pro bono hours when making mass layoff decisions, but those days are over and you're not going to get canned as a first or second year for doing a lot of pro bono. In your reviews, sell your pro bono experience as agressive training and "taking ownership." Your pro bono experience may get you direct connections to great PI organizations that will come in handy when you want to jump.
- Get involved in your community when stuck in biglaw: Find out what bar sections/organizations attract the lawyers from PI orgs or federal agencies you are interested in. Join the relevant committees as the young lawyer liason, etc.
To be honest, I really did none of these things, but I was rejected from some pretty cool PI and governments jobs before finding a pretty cool agency that was willing to take a biglaw refugee. I guess I can say that good biglaw credentials, a good LS, and good grades alone will get you a federal attorney job, but I can't necessairly say the same for PI ITE. Associates who did the things I mention above found their way into good PI jobs without much effort (and they had they added benefit of being familiar with the organization before starting).