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Smarting from a well-publicized survey by the Black Lawyers Association showing that Miami, Fla., law firms are short on black partners, and under fire from clients to become more diverse, Miami area law firms say they have stepped up their efforts to hire minority first-year associates. The minority recruitment effort comes at a time when law firms are scrambling to hire record numbers of new lawyers to meet a record workload wrought by a solid economy. Miami legal powerhouse Holland & Knight hired eight first-year associates for its Miami office — about double the number hired at the firm last year. “This demonstrated dramatically how many people we need for our increased workload,” said Jim Groh, H&K’s hiring partner. “This is the busiest year we’ve ever seen.” John Sumberg of Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami agreed: “It’s a hot market everywhere and top candidates have their pick.” The firm hired three first-year associates this year — one African American, one Hispanic and one from India — and plans next year to double that figure. Akerman Senterfitt also hired three first-years this year — two in litigation and one in real estate — because the firm has more business than ever. “In past years we had not hired directly out of law school,” said Larry Silverman, hiring partner at Akerman, which this year hired its first recruitment director. “We intermittently hired one or two lawyers off of clerkships.” One of Akerman’s first-years, Melissa Williams, is African American. The firm has stepped up its minority hiring since Joseph Hatchett, a former federal appeals judge who is African American, was appointed head of diversity hiring after joining the firm last year. “There is tremendous competition for African Americans, so they can get big bucks,” said Charlie Schuette, chairman of Akerman Senterfitt. One reason for the demand, according to Schuette: Before hiring a law firm, Fortune 500 companies as a matter of routine often ask for a breakdown on the number of African Americans, women and other minorities at the firm. But some law firms say while they are able to hire bountiful numbers of Hispanic lawyers in Miami, they have difficulty attracting African Americans, who appear to prefer places like Atlanta, Chicago and New York. The state of Florida tacitly recognized the problem when it established the Minority Participation Legal Education Scholarship program in 1994. The program, intended to increase the presence of minorities in the Florida Bar, requires participants to agree to stay in the state for three years after they are hired. “You just don’t get that many African Americans applying,” said Chuck Kline, executive partner at White & Case. “I would love to be able to increase the number of black attorneys in our firm.” The firm has had better luck in recent years luring non-black first-year associates to Miami, though. “We’re even getting people from California who want to come to Miami,” Kline said. “We have truly an international practice here, with capital market transactions, dealing with European investors.” Jay Shapiro, managing partner of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, is downright defensive about his firm’s inability to attract black associates, saying bluntly that black lawyers don’t want to come to Miami. “We’re scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do about it,” he said. Greenberg Traurig has also struggled to “sell Miami to African Americans,” said hiring partner Kerri Barsh, fresh from a recruiting trip to Harvard. Many to whom the firm made offers ended up in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., or New York, she said. But Jay Thornton, a first-year at Greenberg Traurig, wasn’t so sure. “I haven’t heard that minorities don’t want to come to Miami,” he said. “It’s so culturally diverse.” Williams, the first-year hired at Akerman Senterfitt, also doesn’t buy the argument. African-American associates she knows want to come to Miami but haven’t gotten offers, she said. The real challenge for law firms, though, is luring the top of the class. Four out of five of Steel Hector & Davis’ new first-years are minorities — three Hispanic and one African American. But the diversity was not premeditated, said managing partner Joseph Klock Jr., who was not aware of the associates’ races until asked. Added Greenberg Traurig’s Kerri Barash: “We don’t have any quotas. Really, we make an effort to recruit the best and the brightest.”

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