Leo Monterrey brings grateful attitude to law career

September 22-28, 2014

By Jay Edwards

Little Rock Attorney Leonardo “Leo” Monterrey was born in Nicaragua in 1980, when the Communist Sandinistas were taking over the country from the decades old Somoza dynasty and its military dictatorship. A revolution and war that began in 1979 saw the Sandinistas attacking transport convoys in rural areas, killing civilians and kidnapping boys and men to train as their Contras.

He had older cousins in grade school, who the family feared would be kidnapped, and so his mother bravely took those cousins from their volatile homeland, up through Guatemala and Mexico to the north and across the U.S. border, where they were given political asylum. 

During that time, back in Nicaragua, Monterrey’s father was able to obtain Visa’s for himself and his young son and they caught a plane headed for Miami, where the family was reunited.

Three years later, Leo’s much older half-brother Jorge, who had been a foreign exchange student at Wisconsin and settled in Waukesha with his wife, convinced his father to move to that town, just 18 miles west of Milwaukee.

“I kind of stuck out like a sore thumb, but it was a good place to grow up,” Monterrey said from his office in downtown Little Rock.

After high school he got an offer to go play Jr. college baseball in Kansas, which he accepted. After a season there, he moved to Little Rock, when UALR called and gave him a scholarship to play baseball there. 

After working through several injuries and surgeries during his time as a Trojan, he realized he should probably change his focus from playing professionally to concentrating on academics. “The percent of student athletes who make it in the big leagues is low,” he said.

The focus on his studies paid off and he was accepted into Bowen Law School. “That was pretty amazing because neither of my parents had gone to college in the U.S.”

Monterrey went in with a very determined attitude. “It was tough,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to expect but that first year was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

“The staff at Bowen was a blessing though. They kind of took me under their wing. They did not want me to fail.”

He did not fail, and even came away with a wife, Christina, who he met at Bowen.

“Chrissy was born in Yonkers, N.Y., to two Cuban-American parents,” Monterrey said. “During her freshman year in high school they moved to Little Rock.” 

While attending Bowen, Monterrey also worked for then U.S. Congressman Vic Snyder, as a district aid. “That was a great opportunity for me,” he recalled.

After passing the Bar he joined another Bowen classmate, Guillermo Hernandez, at his firm, concentrating on immigration law, which had also been his focus while with Snyder. A short time later he felt a call to move forward and he opened his own firm in December 2008. One factor in his decision was that Christina, now his wife, was doing well at the Mitchell Williams law firm. “I knew she could support me for awhile,” he said through a smile.

It wasn’t long after venturing out on his own before he realized the big need the Hispanic community in Central Arkansas has for legal assistance. The demand for his services was so great that he knew he needed some help. “I was soon very, very busy,” he said. “That was when my classmate and good friend Robert Tellez agreed to join me. There we were, two young lawyers with little experience and lots of energy.” 

That was in February of 2009. Just two weeks after Tellez came on they had their first jury trial. 

Monterrey remembers, “I told Robert on his first day, ‘in two weeks we have a trial in DeQueen. You will do the opening, some cross and the closing.’” They won that first trial. 

“That was how we learned, by putting ourselves out there. And we were busy so we were learning a lot in a short period of time.”

Months went by and the firm of Monterrey and Tellez’s client base continued growing in immigration law, family law and criminal cases. It was time to bring in more help and he did not have to look far. “Chrissy was happy at Mitchell Williams but we needed her and she agreed to join us,” he said. “And she also speaks Spanish, which is important.”

Monterrey says that a big part of immigration law is the humanitarian aspect. “You see so many news stories these days about immigrants, and a big number of them are children. It breaks my heart when there is nothing we can do for them, only because of some bad choices their parents have made.”

And it makes it even tougher because Monterrey and his partners hear the specifics of what these children will be returning to. They know that options for immigrants are often poor or none at all. He can empathize with their plight by drawing back on his own experiences and the sacrifices made by his parents so he could have a better life. “Just a chance is sometimes all they are looking for,” he said. 

“You know, a child in Nicaragua never dreams of growing up and becoming a lawyer. You are in a certain social class and that’s where you stay, because that’s just the way the system works.

“That is the wonderful thing about this country. A kid from Nicaragua can come here and have dreams that can come true.

“And then, as citizens, we can contribute back to society by paying our taxes and finding vocations that can affect others in a positive way. America is a great country. And adults from other countries look to come here because they want what everyone does, a better life for their families.”