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First-time golfer Kenysha Bartee eyes the tee while standing against the backdrop of an expansive, manicured green, surrounded by trees boasting the vibrant oranges and reds of fall. After several missed swings, she receives some encouraging coaching from mentoring team members who have more experience hitting the little white ball. The advice pays off. After a few attempts, Bartee connects with a stroke that sends the ball bouncing 75 feet downrange. For the second-year Howard University School of Law student, the guidance she receives during her first-ever golf game on this October day is about more than just 18 holes and learning a new game. It’s about the art of networking and the importance of being in the mix. For law students like Bartee, the first Womble Carlyle Diversity Open at Westfields Golf Course in Clifton, Va., is also an opportunity to strengthen relationships with potential mentors, business leaders, and future colleagues in an environment often viewed as a place where critical business decisions and social connections are made. Historically, minorities have not been included in that setting. “I came to network and establish more relationships from the lawyers from the area because I’m not from the area originally,” says Bartee, of Lynchburg, Va. “Networking events have been my way of getting my foot in the door in a lot of different areas. I’m just building a foundation for my next step in life.” Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice teamed minority law students from Howard, American University, Catholic University, George Mason University, Georgetown University, and the University of the District of Columbia with Womble Carlyle lawyers and their business colleagues. More than 100 students, businessmen, and Womble attorneys participated. PAIRING UP The Diversity Open was the brainchild of Womble associates Samantha Ahuja, Kevin Pigott, and Louis Rouleau, who were contemplating ways to push their firm’s diversity initiative. “Our firm has been undertaking an expansion of our diversity efforts,” Ahuja says. “And in doing so, we were looking to come up with some really innovative ways in which to encourage minority law students into the practice of law by addressing some of the pipeline issues that are very prevalent right now amongst law schools and law firms.” “One of the things, when speaking to students on an almost daily basis, was that they would really like the opportunity to build mentor/mentee relationships with other minorities in the legal and business fields,” adds Ahuja, who is of Indian descent. She is one of only 42 minority lawyers currently at the 537-attorney firm, which is based in Winston-Salem, N.C. The 41-lawyer D.C. office of the firm has four minority lawyers. “As a practicing attorney, one of the most important things is kind of understanding the important element of your business contacts and networking. So we decided that golfing, which is where a lot of business is done, would be a great venue to combine everything,” says Ahuja. The firm has spearheaded several initiatives outside the golf outing to reach out and improve diversity within its own ranks. And it is not alone. Many law firms in D.C. have put forth efforts to recruit minorities or mentor emerging minority law students. According to the 2000 Census, minorities make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, but attorneys of color account for fewer than 5 percent of partners and 15 percent of associate, senior, and staff attorneys nationwide, reports the Association for Legal Career Professionals. For centuries the private practice sector of the law field has traditionally been an exclusive club where membership has been limited to a privileged few, and although the trend is slowly reversing, the field needs to do more to open up the doors. “Law firms were not willing to make the investment in lateral recruitment or address pipeline issues,” says Ron Jordan, founder and chairman of diversity-recruiting and attorney-placement firm Carter-White & Shaw. “It would be incumbent of the law firms to expand the culture of their firm and reflect the country that we live in, because it is projected that minorities will be 50 percent of the population by 2050,” he says. The idea of giving golf lessons to students entering an increasingly competitive business world is becoming widespread. So much so that the Associated Press reported that a Chinese university is making lessons mandatory for its business and law students. “I think what it takes is enlightened leaders to help unlock the doors and bring people that are traditionally under-represented at the bar into that environment, and I think we got a good example at this event,” says Nancy Combs, a second-year law student at the University of the District of Columbia. Brent Clinkscale, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s South Carolina office, says there is a dearth of minorities in the law field itself. “I think it’s the pipeline. We have to have a bigger pipeline of minorities going into the law and then a bigger pipeline of minority lawyers doing well within law school,” says Clinkscale, who is African-American. “So we have to help build that pipeline until we get more lawyers. So we’ve got to expand the pool that law firms can choose from.” Real estate developer David Carl of AdvantEdge Development was one of several area business leaders invited to participate in the golf outing. A former lawyer, he suggests that a misguided perception of the field discourages many young minority lawyers from entering private practice. Many take government jobs or leave the law field altogether. “The important thing is to network and be able to meet people and not be held back because of your perception of what it may be like or fear that you won’t have the skill level to compete,” says Carl. “Therefore, you remove yourself from the arena from where a lot of business is done.”
Michael Martin can be contacted at [email protected].

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