Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch brokerage business provided a bright spot in an otherwise dismal first quarter for the bank, reporting sharply higher revenue and client assets as well as a net increase of nearly 200 financial advisers.

Merrill Lynch posted quarterly revenue of $3.54 billion, up 18 percent from a year earlier. Client balances increased 7 percent to a total of $1.6 trillion as Merrill advisers added more than 5,800 new accounts with at least $250,000 in assets.

Merrill's focus on recruiting paid off in the quarter, with a net gain of 184 advisers expanding the Thundering Herd's ranks to 15,695 advisers. This is the second-largest U.S. brokerage force behind Morgan Stanley Smith Barney , which had 18,043 advisers at the end of 2010.

The Merrill brokerage force is seeing record-low attrition, Bank of America Chief Executive Brian Moynihan said in a conference call with analysts.

While the bank is focused on cutting costs in other areas, Moynihan emphasized that would not affect financial adviser recruiting. Merrill is currently offering top advisers up to 330 percent of their annual fees and commissions to join the firm.

Merrill advisers were 15 percent more productive in the first quarter than a year earlier, generating on average $931,000 in annualized fees and commissions.

Bank of America's global wealth and investment management unit -- which includes Merrill Lynch, private banking unit U.S. Trust and corporate retirement services -- increased revenue by 11 percent to $4.5 billion, fueled by record asset management fees and brokerage commissions.

In a sign that investors are continuing to come back into the market, BofA clients withdrew $6.7 billion from money market funds and other short-term investments in the quarter, while adding $14 billion in longer-term investments, which generate more fees. Overall brokerage fees increased by $137 million during the quarter.

The wealth division posted a profit of $531 million, up 22 percent from a year earlier. Bank of America does not disclose profit figures for Merrill Lynch or U.S. Trust, nor does it publish net new client asset flows.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky and John Wallace)