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Program Helps Minority Law Students Advance Their Careers

As a student at the University of Miami School of Law, Quinshawna Landon seized her opportunity to take part in a special minority mentoring program organized by John W. Kozyak, founding partner of the Miami firm Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, PA. Through his foundation and the support of thousands of judges, lawyers, law school administrators and guests, Kozyak hosts an annual Minority Mentoring Picnic for students from every law school in Florida.

“A fellow law student and friend challenged me to take advantage of the many networking opportunities at the picnic,” said Landon, who attended the 2009 event. “I listened to her advice and it resulted in a wonderful experience. Through the picnic, I was able to meet two incredible mentors, Assistant United States Attorney James Weinkle and Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley.”


In fact, Weinkle remembers his mentee, who graduated from law school in May. “I have lots of emails still from those days, and it was a great experience,” says Weinkle who has mentored five students since 2009.

Kozyak says the goal of the Kozyak Minority Mentoring Foundation is to help each minority law student in Florida succeed and to maximize his or her law school experience. “During the past decade, we have helped match more than a thousand minority law students and have a waiting list of outstanding, experienced judges and lawyers eager to assist. This is a low-cost, highly rewarding program and we encourage the South Florida legal community to get involved.”

Combating Racism

Since moving to Miami in 1974, Kozyak has been dedicated to helping minority student succeed. “I grew up in a segregated community in Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, and was a high school sophomore when the 1964 civil rights legislation was implemented,” he said. “It was a time when Missouri, and Florida as well, had bathrooms that said ‘colored only.’ I knew that there was something wrong with our society and decided to do something to combat that racism.”

Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince
with John Kozyak at the 2011 picnic

Kozyak came to Miami after law school for a summer clerkship without knowing a person. “I was hired by two well-known, respected lawyers, who were wonderful mentors,” he said. At the Miami office of Mahoney Hadlow and Adams, a Jacksonville firm, Kozyak quickly got involved in recruiting new associates. “I took a special interest in recruiting women, blacks and Hispanics for the firm,” he says. “By the time the firm dissolved in 1980, our office was a leader in bringing in Latin American attorneys.”

In December 1982, Kozyak founded his firm with partners Harley Tropin and Chuck Throckmorton. “At that time there was a citywide curfew following a riot in Overtown,” he recalled. “Looking out the window and seeing buildings burn made a deep impression on all of us.”

Soon after the firm was up and running, Kozyak began helping black law students with scholarships and contributions to the University of Miami School of Law’s Litigation Skills Program. In keeping with that philosophy, Kozyak became a mentor as well. For the past 15 years, the attorneys at the firm have been actively involved in mentoring black students from the law schools at the University of Miami, St. Thomas University and Florida International University.

Launching the Event

 John Kozyak and Detra Shaw-Wilder

Nine years ago, Kozyak and Detra Shaw-Wilder, a partner at the firm, decided to host a picnic that would give black law students in South Florida an opportunity to connect with potential mentors, get career advice and network with their peers. About 200 people turned out for the first picnic, but thanks largely to word-of-mouth referrals, the event attracted more than 1,000 participants in its second year.

Last year, attendance surpassed 3,500 as the minority mentoring picnic expanded to cover all minorities, including Hispanics, Muslims, Asian-Americans, as well as gays, lesbians and students with disabilities. Law firms from throughout the region participated and hosted a variety of activities. For instance, Berger Singerman sponsored a volleyball tournament for the law students.

This year the Kozyak Minority Mentoring Foundation will be hosting its 9th Annual Minority Mentoring Picnic on Saturday, November 10 at Amelia Earhart Park in Hialeah. Lead sponsors include GreenbergTraurig, BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Sabadell United Bank, Berger Singerman and Gunster among others. The picnic is also supported by the Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Bar Associations, as well as many other South Florida legal associations.

“I think the picnic has been so successful, because it’s a fun, easy, low-cost model,” Kozyak said. After registering, students receive a button that says “Need Mentor,” while attorneys, judges and other guests wear buttons that say “Need Mentee.”

Students can walk around, talk to others, and establish a mentor-mentee relationship, while sampling a wide array of ethnic foods. They can also visit tents set up by groups like the Cuban American Bar Association and the National Hispanic Bar Association. Students can also fill in applications and be matched with a mentor after the picnic.

Kozyak says most minority students are first-generation college graduates who are wondering about what classes to take or legal specialty to pursue. “Other students want some advice about living in South Florida and being away from home,” he added.

A little advice for law students

John Kozyak has a few words of advice for minority law students

√ Don’t take shortcuts. It takes time to become a skilled attorney.

√ Start cultivating your reputation now while you are in law school, and make sure your classmates respect you.

√ Be prepared to work hard in law school. Go to every class and take advantage of special programs.

√ Start building your network in school. Your classmates will one day be your peers in the legal profession.

When Kozyak takes on a new mentee, he tries to help them set priorities and understand the first steps in an associate’s legal career. “Some students want to get right into entertainment and sports law and work with big-name celebrities,” he said. “But I tell them to learn about contracts or taxes or licensing issues and business disputes first. You have to know the basics before you can really serve your clients — whoever they might be.”

He also brings mentees to bar events, judicial fundraisers and other activities, that provide opportunities for networking. “I mentored a Hispanic woman who graduated two years ago,” he said. “I introduced her to a local firm, and she was able to become a summer associate and eventually get a job offer. I think being a mentee can give you a real advantage in today’s job market.”

As a former mentee, Landon certainly agrees with that sentiment. “My mentors provided me with guidance and support, and served as great sounding boards. I truly enjoyed the picnic and appreciate John Kozyak’s tireless efforts to expose minorities, who otherwise may not have the opportunity, to mentors in the legal field. I would encourage everyone to take part in the Minority Mentoring Picnic. Mentoring truly works.”

In 2006, John Kozyak received the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award and the Florida Bar’s highest award for humanitarianism, The G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award. In 2007, he received the ABA’s “Spirit of Excellence” award for his work in diversity. Kozyak was honored by the Anti-Defamation League with its 2010 Jurisprudence Award for his contributions to the legal profession and to the community at large, and in 2011, he received the Florida Bar’s Henry Latimer Diversity Award.

South Florida Legal Guide 2012 Financial Edition

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