Meet Manny Mato, a member of the class of 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Not only does the 25-year-old Coral Gables native have a job as an associate at Greenberg Traurig, but he already got a $20,000-a-year raise — and he doesn’t start work until next week.

“The job market is definitely getting better,” said Mato, who received two job offers after six interviews. “You need to interview a lot and get out there and meet people for sure. But out of all of my friends at school, everyone got a job at a big law firm.”

For the last few years, law graduates have faced doom and gloom predictions about their chances of landing good law firm jobs in a shrinking, post-recession legal market. Law school enrollment has dropped as would-be young lawyers opted for careers in business and other fields to avoid paying crushing law school loans with diminishing job prospects.

Some graduates have even filed class action lawsuits against their schools accusing them of misleading promises and statistics on post-graduate employment.

In 2007, the American Bar Association reported 91 percent of law graduates got jobs as big law firms hiked salaries in lock-step fashion and graduates turned to websites like greedyyoungassociates.com to share their offers.

By 2009, though, the national market had dipped dramatically, with just 65 percent of law graduates getting jobs as attorneys.

But a glimmer of hope has emerged for the class of 2013 in South Florida, where the legal market and economy are slowly rebounding. With national and international law firms opening offices in Miami, real estate and corporate markets rebounding and the South Florida economy improving in general, lawyer hiring is no longer bleak.

Law firms are starting to hire more first-year associates, graduates are feeling more optimistic, and legal recruiters are finding more demand for newly minted lawyers, particularly in hot areas like real estate.

Getting Busier

One positive sign came when Greenberg Traurig raised first-year associate salaries in Miami and Fort Lauderdale to $145,000 from $125,000 last month.

“It’s not simply the dollars associated with the announcement, but the message it sends that we are coming back,” said Brad Kaufman, who leads Greenberg’s associate development program. “Do I think we will return to the same way of doing business as we did in 2007? No. Do I expect a return to those days when we had huge summer associate programs? No. But things are improving, and our numbers of new hires are ticking up.”

Greenberg hired five first-year associates in South Florida this year, one more than the 2010 low, and expects to hire eight to 10 next year, the same as its 2012 level.

Arly Walker, a legal recruiter with Search for Excellence in Fort Lauderdale, sees demand for real estate and corporate associates returning.

“Firms are getting busier and hiring,” she said. “But it’s not as it was in 2007.”

Walker advises new graduates to network like crazy and “hit the pavement.”

Alex Acosta, law dean at Florida International University, said the number of law firms conducting on-campus interviews shot up 43 percent year over year, and openings on the school’s online job board have doubled in recent months.

“The market for attorneys is definitely improving,” he said. “It’s absolutely encouraging.”

Still, a graduate’s chance of getting into a major firm, statistically speaking, is slim. The long-worn path of attaining a summer associateship and hoping for a job offer at the firm a year later has not changed. Mato, for example, was a summer associate at Greenberg last year. All of Holland & Knight’s six new associates in South Florida were summer associates last year.

Seeking The Right Fit

Chris Callahan is an example of a nontraditional law graduate who wasn’t a summer associate at a big firm and is struggling.

He created a triple degree program at the University of Miami School of Law that combines a law, master’s of business administration and master’s of tax degree. But the 2013 magna cum laude graduate who worked in basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, consulted at a Miami accounting firm and was a summer associate at a Hong Kong law firm has had trouble landing a job at a top Miami law firm.

“My goal is to stay down here, but I went an untraditional route,” said Callahan, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and attended Tulane University as an undergraduate. “Instead of doing a summer associate position with a big firm, I did my own unique thing. I’m coming in as a hybrid.”

Still, Callahan is picky and has his sights set on international law firms with Miami offices.

“I’m trying to find the right fit,” he said. “I don’t want to work at a firm that doesn’t have extremely good training.”

Being picky is not recommended by legal recruiters.

“If you’re in the top 10 percent of your class, if you’re the cream of the crop, the Ivy League graduate, you will get a job at a big law firm,” notes Jonathan Broder, a legal recruiter with Strategic Professional Staffing in Miami. “Others have to be more creative in their job search.”

In fact, competition for these top candidates has heated up, which helps explain why Greenberg raised its first-year salaries.

“I think it’s a market reaction to the market coming back and realizing that even though there are fewer jobs, there is still great competition for great students,” said Brad Sprayberry, director of legal recruiting for Gunster. “We have national firms like Jones Day coming to town and others.”

Referrals Help

Gunster, like most South Florida law firms, looks for new associates with Florida ties. The firm’s new hires are graduates of Florida State University, the University of Florida, Nova Southeastern University, the University of Miami and Stetson University.

Law schools and legal recruiters now encourage graduates to look at small and mid-sized firms, which are expanding while major firms have contracted.

Cole Scott & Kissane, for example, appears to be hiring more new associates than any other South Florida law firm — 33 so far this year and 75 last year.

The 240-lawyer firm, which specializes in insurance defense, employment law and commercial litigation, is steadily growing, said managing partner Richard Cole.

He relies on referrals from firm associates, law deans, professors and judges to find his first-years.

Still, “it’s always a struggle to find good candidates,” he said.

According to several legal recruiters who asked not to be identified, Cole Scott & Kissane has a high turnover rate as its hourly billing requirement for associates is high — 2,400 to 2,600 hours a year — and lawyers burn out there quickly.

Cole responded, “We have turnover like any other firm.”

Still, recruiters recommend jobs at Cole Scott & Kissane as the starting salary is competitive for its size — upwards of $90,000. And the newbies can acquire intensive litigation experience compared with large firm associates who may spend much of their time doing document review and never see a courtroom.

Entry-level Work

Lydecker Diaz is another smaller firm that is growing rapidly and snapping up new associates — nine this year, including five first-years. Lydecker doesn’t pay what the large law firms do, with starting associates at $65,000 a year. But new arrivals can gain trial experience and make partner in a few years, said firm founder Richard Lydecker. At some larger firms, the track to partner for the few who make it that far has lengthened to 10 years.

“We have the ability to train them up ourselves with monthly classes and pairing them with partners,” Lydecker said. “In six months, you have a productive first-year associate.

“Greenberg Traurig and the others, they are overpaying for potential. It’s great to start lawyers at $145,000 a year, but let me know what they’re getting in year two or year three. It’s almost like golden handcuffs for them. You have no real chance of being a shareholder there. If you’re productive and killing it here, you can become a partner.”

Contraction in the BigLaw market has proven a boon for Lydecker Diaz.

“The market has contracted a bit for lawyers, and we now have the ability to attract top attorneys at a competitive rate,” Lydecker said.

Law firms specializing in foreclosure work are another avenue for law graduates who may not have considered the option before, recruiters say.

Anthony Halmon, a second-year FIU law student, is heeding the words of recruiters and his dean. The Tampa native is well into his 2014 summer associate search and snagged three interviews at the Southeastern Minority Job Fair in Atlanta. Turned away by Akerman Senterfitt and Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod, he’s still awaiting word from Shook, Hardy & Bacon.

Halmon, treasurer of FIU’s Black Law Student Association, had an internship at Colson Hicks Eidson this summer and recently started an externship with U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami. His goal: to do high-stakes commercial litigation at a medium-sized plaintiffs firm.

“It’s very competitive out there, but there are very realistic possibilities for finding a job,” he said. “I never pigeonhole myself into what the current job market is. I look at each day as an opportunity to hustle, and I don’t worry about the trends of the job market.”