My take on Dallas corp work:
First, there is a world of difference between Houston and Dallas corporate work. Almost all of the big deals in Texas are done in Houston. That being said, I practice in Dallas and I love Dallas - you just have to get over the fact that corporate work will never be as strong here. There's simply too much competition from New York and Houston firms, as Dallas is not as energy-focused as Houston, so our work can really be done by anyone.
Second, determining where you want to go should involve a variety of factors. There are essentially four groups of firms in Dallas imo: national satellites, Houston satellites, top Dallas-based firms and more regional firms (most of which are based in Dallas). I'll give my impressions by group:
National satellites: The first few firms listed below are where you should try to go if you don't want to make partner and want to maximize earning potential in the first four-five years. If you want to stay in Dallas, I think the exit ops are very similar for people from these firms as they are from people at Winstead/Gardere (ie, more regional firms) - so its really about maximizing earnings while you're in BigLaw. There is obviously a chance you can still make partner, but its very low (and almost entirely out of your control). And if you do want to make partner and are planning to just get good firm experience and then move down a rung on the "prestige ladder," you may be disappointed in that you'll often end up several rungs down the ladder as VE/BB/HB/TK don't often have mid-senior associate openings (you're more likely to end up at a Wick Phillips, Gardere, etc). These places aren't really the sweatshops people say they are (you'll work really hard elsewhere too). I would rank the satellites in the following order:
-Gibson: great work, partners can be difficult in Corp, good culture
-Weil: great work, office has lost more than half its lawyers in last two years after Sidley raid, almost no Corp partners left, good culture
-Sidley: great lit work, smaller Corp group but very smart team, not sure how much work they have
-Akin: terrible office culture, great firm overall, less sophisticated work than the firms listed above
-Winston: sort of a wildcard, great litigators but their transactional team is really just some Locke real estate PE guys and a couple partners from Greenberg and JD
-Jones Day: good sophisticated work, but a rough culture and a shrinking office - used to be close to 200 now less than half that size; very low pay compared to the other national satellites (probably even lower than the top Dallas-based firms)
-McDermott: has most of the former KL Gates corp group, unclear how busy they are, but nice folks and good pay
-Alston & Bird: not much true corp work, but a great firm with good people in the Dallas office - most of the transactional practice is in the financial regulatory area
-Other satellites that aren't major players (at least not yet) and/or used to be major players but are shells of their former selves and/or pay wayyy below market in Dallas: Holland & Knight, Squire Patton Boggs, Polsinelli, Greenberg, KL Gates
Houston satellites: You'll make less money than the national satellites (especially if you don't have super high hours) but have slightly better partnership chances. I would only accept at one of these if I couldn't get a national firm and didn't want to make partner. Exit ops are similar from here as from the national firms and the Dallas-based firms.
-VE: best Corp work in the state but mostly out of Houston, awkward satellite office culture with a big inferiority complex, great associates but difficult partner personalities
-BB: not really a player in Dallas corp work and just lost two partners to Sidley (not much of a corp group left)
-Fulbright: even less of a Dallas player in corp work
-Andrews Kurth: great Houston office, very little corp work in Dallas and rough culture
-Bracewell: no corp work in Dallas
Top Dallas firms: You'll make less money (but still good - basically the same base as above but just smaller bonuses unless you're really killing it in the hours department), but have much better partnership prospects, as these firms aren't nearly as leveraged as the above firms and also because you'll know the power players at the firm rather than just a few partners out of hundreds.
-TK: smaller corp group than HB BUT much more sophisticated energy work, less of a national practice but often against the top Houston firms (KE, Latham, VE, etc), great culture, TK has the highest revenue per lawyer of any Dallas firm
-HB: biggest corp group in town, lots of middle market work in a variety of industries, work quality is mixed but culture is great and a great fit for people who'd like to be somewhere for a while (virtually no energy work to speak of though, which means smaller deals, lower fees, and less profitability)
-Locke: not really a player in the corp world in Dallas, has a strong energy group in Houston, but most of its higher profile transactional lawyers went to Winston, recent mergers are taking a toll, other practice groups in Dallas are strong though
Regional firms: Even less money than above, but also good partnership prospects. Less sophisticated work than the top Dallas shops but different practices are very well-respected (i.e., finance at Winstead is very well regarded).
-Winstead: good culture, good finance group
-Jackson Walker: great culture, similar work as HB but on a smaller scale, more RE work than true corp work
-Gardere: like a smaller HB in that they do even more "mid" midmarket work in the Corporate/PE arena, good culture
-Munsch Hardt: good group, even more regional than Winstead/JW/Gardere but not going anywhere anytime soon