From Manila to New York
After moving to New York from Manila in her early teen years, Connie experienced difficulty adjusting to life in a new city and country. She had always considered herself bookish and a “geek.” Instead of hanging out after school with her peers at Stuyvesant High School, she heeded the frequent reminders from her parents to work hard. For Connie, working hard meant studying well, a belief she has carried to her practice as a litigator to this day.
Connie’s efforts in school bore fruit. She received a scholarship at New York University, where she finished her undergraduate studies. Her college years, however, were a time of great tumult. Because both her parents lost their jobs before she graduated, Connie became a working student to finance her studies and to support her family, including her two younger sisters. At the same time, Connie began grappling with her sexual identity. Born and raised a Catholic, Connie found herself weighed down with religious questions that needed to be reconciled with her deep and abiding faith.
That crisis of faith directed Connie’s path to Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational graduate school in theology and affiliate of Columbia University, and long considered to be an intellectual center for liberal theology with a faculty that has included Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, and Beverly Harrison. On the way to finishing her masters in Divinity at the seminary, Connie immersed herself in queer theology and feminist ethics. Her studies not only helped her reconcile the different rifts in her personal life then but also drew her to social justice issues and immigrants’ rights work, which eventually led her to law school.
Connie finished her law studies at Brooklyn Law School, where she was a recipient of the Edward V. Sparer fellowship. At a year-long clinic in law school, Connie got exposed to federal litigation, an experience that she says fueled her passion for litigation. She recalls that her first oral argument was an employment discrimination case with Meredith Miller, now a professor at Touro Law School and president of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York.
Rising Up the Litigator Ranks
After graduation, Connie joined the Special Federal Litigation (SFLIT) unit of the Corporation Counsel’s Office of the City of New York, where she says she earned many of her litigation stripes and scars. As a member of SFLIT, she defended New York City employees against claims of false arrest, malicious prosecution, and excessive force. Connie recalls that of her numerous federal jury trials during her five-year tenure at SFLIT, she did not lose a single one. Her work and efforts were rewarded. In her first year, she was awarded Rookie of the Year and, in her third and fourth year, was awarded the Municipal Affairs Award by the New York City Bar Association, the highest award that the group gives to a corporate counsel lawyer or city employee.
Connie had her share of challenges as an Asian American female attorney rising through the litigator ranks. She remembers that adversaries would sometimes underestimate or dismiss her. But she also quickly learned that many more members of the legal profession, lawyers and judges, recognized competence and excellence. So Connie, as she did when she was in school, worked and studied hard, coming to court prepared and with a mastery of the facts, the law, the procedures, and even (or especially) the judge’s rules and background.
Connie says: “Regardless of your physical appearance, judges respect you immediately if you’re capable, you know what your case is about, and you’re prepared. By and large, my experiences as a litigator have been positive. You have to put in the work and develop a reputation for excellence over the years. There are no shortcuts.”
When asked what advice she can give to other minority attorneys, Connie says that minority lawyers are practicing at a “fortuitous time” because society, corporations, and law firms have embraced diversity. She says that “more doors have been opened” for lawyers who “have the work ethic, who are responsive and smart, and have a great personality.” To conclude the interview, she had this to say about diversity:
When you embrace diversity, that means you’re more open to growth and talent. Minority attorneys bring with them a wide array of backgrounds, life experiences, and insights—all of which just enrich the end product. This is important because lawyers deal with real-life problems involving real people. The richness of perspective and dialogue can only lead to better and well-thought-out solutions. You cannot do it alone.
Keywords: litigation, minorities, Concepcion Montoya, litigation partner