Left to right: Jay Kim , Eugene Pettis and Leora Freire.

A Florida Bar training program lauded by participants for helping diversify the pool of applicants that become active in state bar committees and leadership has shrunk this year to half its original size.

The Wm. Reece Smith Jr. Leadership Academy began in 2013 with 59 fellows as the brainchild of former Florida Bar president Eugene Pettis, who that year became the association’s first African-American president. The program was meant to help lawyers from a variety of backgrounds better understand the work of the bar, present them with volunteer options and assist them in becoming better leaders.

Pettis, a co-founder of Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm in Fort Lauderdale, was adamant that the program serve the individuals least likely to rise up in the bar. The makeup of the program fluctuates from class to class, but more than a third has always been minorities, and more than half of the selected fellows each year have been women. Past graduates include two members of the Florida Bar’s board of governors, two voluntary bar association liaisons to the board and six members of the Young Lawyers Division.

This year the size of the program dropped to 31 after the board reviewed the program for cost and surveyed graduates, said Diversity Initiatives Manager Arnell Bryant-Willis.

“One of the prevailing findings from the survey was the desire to have a smaller class,” said Pettis, who still advises the program from time to time. “That, along with the need to make the academy more self-sufficient, led to this class size.”

Pettis said they believe the participants this year are of the highest quality and the group is very diverse. He said the number of applicants has dropped, but the bar can always get more applicants. Classes will be of a higher quality and smaller than they have been in the past.

The cost of the program costs the bar roughly $70,000, but fellows are expected to cover their travel and hotel costs. They meet two days every other month at various locations around the state.

“If you were to look at the makeup of the people who are involved, you would see there is very high diversity in the class. Once they are involved, they have a leg up,” said Jay Kim, managing partner of Kim Vaughan Lerner in Fort Lauderdale and a graduate of the inaugural class. “It helped me see how all the pieces fit together. They had a lot of different sections on how the bar works, how everything comes together, and the leadership structure.”

Kim, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to Fort Lauderdale when he was six, said the program taught him how to get involved in the bar and improve it, but the professional network is probably one of the most important benefits. Kim just completed his first year of a two-year term as the first Asian-American elected to the Florida Bar’s board of governors.

Leora Freire, a shareholder at Richman Greer in West Palm Beach and immediate past president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, became a Leadership Academy fellow after a friend mentioned the program.

“First and foremost, it was an incredible networking experience that I otherwise wouldn’t have known,” Freire said.

She said she also learned about the bar’s grievance system, how rules are passed, and the roles of the board of governors and committee chairs.

She was already busy with her FAWL responsibilities, but she applied to committees relevant to her leadership in that organization and was appointed to the voluntary bar liaison committee and the special committee for gender bias. She has since applied for next year’s professional ethics committee.

“The bar is huge — there is a ton to learn,” Freire said. “They want to see you apply for those positions. They hope this will get you excited.”