Judy Conti '94
Passionate Advocate for the Nation's Workers
by Rachel Ganong '12
Judy Conti had exactly the high-energy, highly competent personality she needed to succeed in the legal environment of the 1990s. Fortunately for those around her, this 1994 William & Mary Law School graduate defined success in broader terms than power and prestige.
"I was one of those people who from a very early age thought I wanted to go to law school," she said, recalling what drew her to the legal profession. "My grandfather was a lawyer. I was always an argumentative type of person who liked to advocate for my positions. And I loved lawyer shows."
In addition to a natural inclination toward the law, Conti had something else: an interest in social justice that would inform her practice and make her a model of William & Mary's citizen-lawyer ideal.
"With the interest and skills I had, I decided that the best way for me to make an impact was with a law degree," she said. When she started visiting law schools, she knew she belonged at William & Mary.
"The feeling of community and the sense that this was such a great place to be was so evident," she said. "There wasn't this notion that I must take everyone else out in order to succeed."
True to her potential, Conti excelled in law school. She competed in the Bushrod Moot Court Tournament, landing a coveted spot on the Moot Court Team. She also was an officer of the Women's Law Society and was a member of the staff of the William and Mary Law Review. In addition, she was also a founding member and Notes Editor of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law.
While her resume easily could have catapulted her into 'Big Law,' Conti remained convinced that she wanted to work in public service. Professors like Susan Grover and Davison M. Douglas, now dean, and classes such as employment law, business law, and family law affirmed her commitment to public service.
"There wasn't a single class in which the professor didn't have scrupulously ethical standards which he or she used to analyze the human impact of the law," she said. "In corporations, for example, it was learning how ABC Mega Corp. impacts low-wage workers."
Professors likewise recognized Conti's singular drive to do good.
"Judy Conti was like many students in wanting to make a difference for the good," said Associate Professor Susan Grover. "What set her apart was that she was unstoppable in pursuing her vision. Her energy was and is a remarkable thing, seemingly undepletable."
Grover said she tries to encourage students to be true to themselves and incorporate citizen-lawyer principles into their professional practice. Conti exemplified that strategy, she said.
"Judy Conti was very successful at remaining true to herself, and that may have something to do with why she has accomplished so much," she said.
Shortly after graduation, Conti met a temporary setback in pursuing a public service career. Her plan to become an advocate for children was thwarted when the clinic where she volunteered lost its funding to hire new lawyers. She also experienced the stress of working with society's youngest and most vulnerable members.
"My time at New York Legal Aid showed me I was not able to maintain any professional distance from the kids I was working with," she said. "I began to think more broadly about how I might serve the public interest."
With the help of the Law School's Office of Career Services, she secured a federal clerkship. Clerking gave her an opportunity to redefine her goals as a lawyer, and, after completing her clerkship, she joined the law firm of James & Hoffman in Washington, DC. It was during her time at the firm that she found her calling.
The firm specialized in union-side labor and employment law, a practice area which Conti had enjoyed studying in law school. While at James & Hoffman, she worked on a pro bono case representing poultry workers from Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The case involved 100 "chicken catchers," workers who traveled from chicken farm to chicken farm catching grown chickens by hand for slaughter. In its successful outcome, the case resulted in three years of back wages for unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
"It was through that case that I realized I loved working for people who were so badly treated," she said. "There wasn't any firm outside of ours who was willing to touch the case. As we wrapped up the bulk of that case, I started looking around for an organization that did public interest work for low-wage workers. It didn't exist."
That's when Conti knew she had discovered her niche.
In 1999 she began efforts to co-found the DC Employment Justice Center. After a year of needs assessment and fundraising, the center opened its doors on Labor Day in 2000. She worked at the center for seven years, serving as its executive director.
This past year, she watched the center celebrate its 10th anniversary from the vantage point of a new job. As her role at the center turned from substantive law work to full-time fundraising, she began to miss working with people and solving legal problems. So when the opportunity arose to join the National Employment Law Project (NELP), she felt ready for a new challenge and became the organization's Federal Advocacy Coordinator.
"What I really am is NELP's lobbyist," she said. "I am over in the Senate and Capitol buildings a lot. I'm over at the White House with fair frequency. My job is to know something about everything we do."
Motivating others to espouse employment change comes naturally to Conti. "Everything we put our stamp on substantively, I'm really passionate about," she said.
It is a passion she credits to the Law School, where she developed her desire to advocate for others in keeping with the school's citizen-lawyer ideal.
"The citizen lawyer is somebody who is a member of his or her community first and a lawyer second," she said, noting that the concept was implicit in her legal education. " It's somebody who is very privileged to have a law degree and who uses it for the betterment of the people around them."
Conti balances her work as a citizen lawyer with a life full of other roles she loves -- such as wife and mother of two young girls, cooking aficionado, musical theater buff, and fan of the New Jersey shore.
She has seen firsthand how lawyers and law students can use the citizen-lawyer ideal to make a difference in the world around them, she said.
"It's really possible," Conti said. "Just keep looking to do something you love."