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He’s Orlando law firm’s only African-American partner

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Shannon J. Owens, Orlando Sentinel

jameilmcwhorterJust five miles separate the Orange Center community and Orlando’s largest law firm, Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed.

There was a time, however, when the road seemed so much longer for Jameil McWhorter, who recently became the firm’s only African-American partner.

McWhorter grew up in Orange Center, where he faced the daily struggles of inner-city life. Distracted and bored, he was a C student through middle school.

But watching episodes of Matlock with his grandmother stirred something in him.

“I thought, ‘This guy never loses a case,'” he joked.

McWhorter, 33, grew up to become his own version of his late grandmother’s television hero. Last month, McWhorter became just the second African-American partner ever at the 40-year-old firm, which has 74 partners.

Kevin Ross, who no longer works for the company, was Lowndes’ first partner of African-American descent. Currently, only one of the firm’s 53 associates is African-American.

Those numbers aren’t lost on McWhorter’s boss, Gregory McNeill. Some African-Americans would rather go to bigger urban markets like Atlanta, and Lowndes fights a perception that the firm isn’t welcoming to minorities, McNeill said.

“When you’re doing the recruiting process, you can talk about judging people strictly on merits, but if you don’t have an African-American partner, they’re going to be skeptical,” McNeill said. “And that’s a fair skepticism. I hope Jameil is just the beginning.”

McWhorter’s mother, Phyllis, originally planted the thought in McWhorter’s head to be an attorney.

The single mother recognized her son was cutting classes, making mediocre grades and smooth-talking teachers in school not because he was behind; he was bored.

“When he was in the fifth grade, I asked his teachers to give him more projects, because if he got bored he would disrupt class,” Phyllis said. “I feel like that’s what happens to a lot of kids when they’re ahead of their class.”

Phyllis figured she could further motivate her son when she took him out of Jones High School and put him with a more diverse student body at Boone.

She also surrounded her son with successful African-American men who had come from similar environments. McWhorter played in a youth basketball league where his coaches were judges and doctors.

But his mother’s parents, Artis and Anna May, provided the most inspiration.

“If you can get enough love, attention and mentoring, you forget you come from a single-parent home,” McWhorter said. “It takes a community to raise a child.”

One of his grandfather’s two jobs was a professional landscaping business. He would take young Jameil along, where he learned the value of hard work and what it could provide.

His grandmother taught him that his friends would come in different colors. By the time he was in the predominantly white environments at the University of Florida and Lowndes, he was unfazed by the prospect of not being welcomed.

“I came in with an open mind and open heart,” said McWhorter, who joined Lowndes in 2002. “A lot of stuff I’d heard [about the firm not treating African-Americans well], I found to be untrue.”

McWhorter’s only regret is not being able to share his journey with his grandparents, who died during his first year of law school at the University of Florida.

Anna May died in August2000, and Artis passed away three months later.

“I knew my grandparents would be happier knowing the first lawyer in the family was Jameil McWhorter.”

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Written by Symphony

March 17, 2009 at 9:20 am

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