By Jarrell Douse

Special to South Florida Times

HIALEAH, FL — Be it for liberty or for justice, hundreds of star-spangled-eyed law school students from throughout the state converged on the grounds of Amelia Earhart Park to attend the 11th Annual Kozyak Minority Mentoring Picnic on Saturday, Nov.1. Each budding lawyer was in search of an opportunity to network with seasoned attorneys, judges and law firms.

The invitational is the byproduct of John Kozyak’s “Aha!” moment. Kozyak, managing partner in the law firm, Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, credits his friend George Haywood as inspiration for creating the networking concept. He recalls vying to get Haywood to reconsider his decision to leave South Florida due to a lack of diversity. “It was Haywood’s departure [that] indicated to me that something had to be done to ensure the vitality of the legal field. This event is about fostering genuine partnerships between apprentices and seasoned veterans. All of our sponsors are judges and attorneys who support the vision of inclusion within the legal profession.”

The perspective of Eugene Pettis, Florida Bar president emeritus is in keeping with Kozyak’s vision. “I think it is really important that we create bridges for the new generation to come into the practice. That is the impetus that brings me to the picnic every year,” he said. “This event gives me the chance to meet with young law students and give them someone to communicate with, someone to look up to, someone to help them transition into the profession. If I can come here and get one person and lift them over the bridge then, it is worthwhile—people did that for me. My career wouldn’t have been as successful as it has been had it not been for people pulling me across.”

University of Florida second-year law student Devon Vickers is grateful for such bridges. “This social gathering is one of the few venues for minority students–specifically black law students– to come and meet professionals who look like one’s self and get firsthand knowledge of what to expect after law school. There is no event like this one,” she said.

Pettis warns that though the event is fun-filled, “Young people need to be serious about the connections they make with these legal veterans. This is about developing and nurturing relationships; it is about being pulled over into the fold.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Eric Hendon knows all-too-well what it feels like to be ambitious and without support. “Thirty-seven years ago I was a law school student and there was no one that I could talk to about career advice or have them give me some sort of direction as to what I needed to do to prepare for the career I wanted. There was no one, I had no one,” he said. “This picnic gives someone who is in the  position that I was in thirty-seven years ago the opportunity to grab onto a judge or lawyer and get the counsel that they need.”

Vickers said she plans to return to the picnic next year. “By coming here I’ve gotten a couple of internships. I don’t think I could have gotten a better experience and opportunity had it not been for the mentors who are willing to lend a helping hand.”