BRADENTON, Fla. – Kareem Spratling studied to become a criminal defense attorney as an undergraduate at Florida State University.
The focus on criminal law, he said, was inspired by O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., a highly visible black lawyer when he was growing up.
But a bond attorney changed his life.
As an undergraduate in 2002, he attended a constitutional law class taught by bond lawyer Randy Hanna, then managing shareholder at Florida-based Bryant Miller Olive.
"I had no plans to do anything in public finance," Spratling said. "Had I not met Randy Hanna, I never would have known anything about public finance. I don't regret it. I'm surprised how much I love it."
Spratling, 35, earned a law degree in 2006, and has worked at Bryant Miller most of that time in the firm's Tampa office. In 2014, he became a shareholder.
As this year's chairman of the Diversity Committee for the National Association of Bond Lawyers, Spratling said he hopes to inspire attorneys with diverse backgrounds by giving them the tools to get involved with NABL panels and by writing more papers for the organization.
By creating a shadow program, Spratling hopes to provide attorneys with opportunities to work with senior attorneys who can provide career guidance.
"I'm really passionate about this," Spratling said. "I think we have good goals on the Diversity Committee to get more diverse panels and papers, and a mentoring program to create a pipeline for lawyers."
Finding attorneys to participate in the program isn't easy for a number of reasons, he said.
Some attorneys don't check the box on the NABL membership form that identifies them as being from a diverse background.
In some cases the box is overlooked and in other cases people don't want to be identified.
"As a minority, you don't know what the information is used for," Spratling said.
The Diversity Committee's doors are wide open to people of all backgrounds regardless of whether the membership box is checked, he said.
"I would have a hard time turning away young lawyers who are not from diverse backgrounds, and who say they want to participate," Spratling said. "But I really think the purpose is, at its core, mentoring young lawyers from diverse backgrounds, and those include women, people of religions outside Christianity, and the LGBT community."
Spratling said he's still trying to identify older attorneys from diverse backgrounds to mentor lawyers outside their geographic footprints to provide them support.
Spratling said his own career advanced with help from developmental support he received at Bryant Miller, and during a short stint at Broad and Cassel.
He understands what it's like for other attorneys who want to learn more about working at firms with a "white shoe" practice like public finance.
"What I often see when I talk to law students about this is that by the time the opportunity to talk about public finance comes around they are already in their third year and too far to make a meaningful run at limited number of positions out there," he said.
Spratling said he benefited from working in firms that invested in him, and invited him to business development meetings.
Now he plans to remain in public finance the rest of his career.
"I like to accomplish things," he said. "It's intellectually challenging."
When people borrow money, they are happy when a deal closes, and his colleagues are nice, Spratling said.
Had it not been for Hanna's invitation to lunch, and the opportunity to discuss public finance, his career would have turned out differently.
Hanna "was very convincing," Spratling recalled.
It led to a job at Bryant Miller as a law clerk, and eventually a career at the firm.
Identifying new candidates to work at the Bryant Miller often begins with scouting students early in law school and asking them to clerk for the firm, according to Hanna, who also began his career clerking.
"We hire a lot of people through the process of law student clerking," he said. "When you look at lawyers and professionals in the firm we have made a concerted effort to recruit in a manner that ensures we cast a very wide net.
"We believe successful firms are those that embrace diversity," Hanna said.
Spratling was "extremely bright," and an active student in law school where he developed a good understanding of Florida's constitutional law, Hanna said.
"In my mind the best bond attorneys are technically proficient and good with people, and with Kareem I saw both of those," Hanna said.
Hanna said Bryant Miller is committed to attracting a diverse mix of professionals.
He acknowledged that it still can be difficult today for minority attorneys to break into public finance across the country.
Professional support and career development is important for them, Hanna said, adding, "I'm very proud of Kareem and NABL for taking this on."
Spratling said it wasn't always easy working in the industry, especially early in his career when he encountered misunderstandings with issuers who had little experience with minority attorneys.
"Occasionally I'd fill in for a law partner working for a small city considering a bond resolution, but they wanted to change the terms of the financing," he said, which required him to stand up and point out that a change could create a problem.
Once, he recalled, a mayor unaccustomed to seeing a black male lawyer in the audience said, "Son, this is not the time for public comment."
Being a bond attorney has also provided opportunities to get involved in interesting programs, such as the federal Department of Education's financing program for Historically Black Universities and Colleges, he said.
"One unique aspect of that program is the vast majority of consultants are from diverse backgrounds," he said. "I used to go to a closing and would be only black person."
Spratling said he has seen female attorneys face similar challenges dealing with acceptance, and that reinforces his resolve to help create more diversity in the field he has grown to love.
Attorney Yovannie Rodriguez, who is second vice-chair of the Diversity Committee, said she also struggled early in her career as she tried to learn and excel in the practice she had chosen.
"It was extra challenging when I felt like the only young, Hispanic woman in the room or on a working group call," said Rodriguez, a shareholder at Marchena and Graham PA in Orlando whose practice focuses mainly on aviation.
"I so very much appreciate all of my mentors, many of them men, but also the woman public finance attorneys that were patient and kind during my steep learning curve," she said. "I hope the committee can assist younger, diverse lawyers in obtaining information, training and mentors from experienced, seasoned lawyers in the public finance area of law."
For more than 15 years, her clients have included the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority working in various capacities, including as an adviser on civil rights and related programs.
In December, she was appointed deputy general counsel for the development and funding of Orlando International Airport's south terminal complex.
"Working as a public finance attorney is incredibly satisfying," Rodriguez said, adding that the collaboration it offers yields positive, tangible results. "It is wonderful to be a part of this legal community."
Raising awareness about the importance of diversity in all legal fields, not just in public finance, is important, she added.
NABL's Diversity Committee has developed attainable goals designed to help bond attorneys further their careers, Spratling said.
"I think we really have a good game plan this year," he said. "At end of the day my real desire is to effect change."
Bryant Miller Olive ranked as the fifth largest bond counsel firm by volume in the Southeast last year with $2.6 billion in transactions, according to data provided by Thomson Reuters.
Kenneth Artin, who is also a shareholder at the firm, currently serves as president of NABL.