Growing up in Ohio, Shahrzad Emami's dream version of Miami featured sunny beaches and Caribbean beats, with a high-spirited streak.
"I saw Miami as a vibrant young city poised to grow," said Emami, the J.D. '06 and Real Property Development LL.M. '07, who is now director of Affordable Housing and Community Development at Legal Services of Greater Miami, founder and director of Florida Community Development Legal, despite her original take on the Magic City.
Practical Teaching of Mortgage Law and Affordable Housing
In 2011, she started teaching mortgage law as an adjunct professor at Miami Law which she taught for four years. Last year, Miami Law launched -- with Emami teaching -- Introduction to Affordable Housing, followed by an Affordable Housing Practicum each spring.
In the practicum, students work on a variety of documents that are part of an actual affordable housing transaction and can meet clients, attend public hearings, and nurture a further understanding of the affordable housing area.
“Professor Emami is an encyclopedia of knowledge. She is an expert in her field and one of the best attorneys that I have ever come across,” said Danielle Salvatore, a current joint degree J.D./LL.M. student in Real Property Development. “After completing the practicum, I feel much better equipped to carry on a conversation with any professional in the Miami real estate arena because I understand crucial concepts of real estate law and know about current events pertinent to real estate that are ongoing throughout the county.”
From Small Town Ohio to Life in Miami
Coming from small-town Wintersville, filled with cheerleading at Friday Night Lights football games, the Vanderbilt University graduate was looking for somewhere warm and exciting and Miami Law fit the bill.
And landing at Miami Law wasn't at all the shortest distance between two points. The 37-year-old had studied dance for almost a decade at the fabled Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, imagining herself with a career in the lights.
Those career aspirations were not top choices in her family. Emami's mother has a Ph.D. in early childhood education; her father is a maxillofacial surgeon.
So she went to Vanderbilt to study medicine but didn't cotton to the science and mathematics. "I ended up coming out with a double major in theatre and communications; my father wasn’t thrilled."
The Road to Law School
"Senior year I started considering law school as a way to channel my enthusiasm for performing and my communication skills into the courtroom."
First-year was challenging and the learning curve steep but she persisted. She eventually got involved in local communities, canvassing for John Kerry's presidential bid, and she took Lit Skills and alternative dispute resolution. She also decided to take courses such as public interest and environmental law.
"I had excelled at lit skills and alternative dispute resolution and received the book award in both," she says. "Throughout law school, I took litigation-based courses; I worked as a summer intern on Capitol Hill and for Guy Lewis, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney, then for Ira Leesfield, a well-known plaintiff’s attorney in town.
Changing Paths from Litigator to Transactions
“As a third year, I worked at the State Attorney's Office and prepped witnesses for a second-degree murder case. I was really good, but it physically made me sick. I realized that litigation wasn't a sustainable way for me to make a living," she says.
Professor Richard Williamson, Emami’s alternative dispute resolution and environmental law professor, sat with Emami one day, and they discussed transactional law. He said it was about building things, putting together deals, positively influencing others, drafting contracts, dealing with tax issues, and estate planning. And not fighting, she says. He suggested she think about staying another year for an LL.M. in Real Property Development.
Finding a Fit in Real Estate Development Law
"Doug Bishoff was a great mentor," Emami says. "He thought, even if I didn't end up in real estate law, it would be such great exposure to the transactional side that would serve me in many ways."
A job posting from Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. for an affordable housing lawyer intrigued her -- a satisfying mix of creativity, working with clients, the community, and the government to both build new affordable housing in Miami-Dade and save existing buildings and neighborhoods.
Eleven years after joining Legal Services, five lawyers are working on affordable housing and community development because Miami is one of the least affordable cities in the country. Just this year Legal Services also launched a regional affordable housing initiative, with nine attorneys and two paralegals working from Orlando down through Key West, known as Florida Community Development Legal, with Emami at the helm.
"Miami Law helped me find the path where I could use my skills and passion and apply it to a very unique area of law," Emami says. "Teaching is another part of that passion in that I am exposing others to an interesting, challenging, and rewarding career direction."