A Rising Star
Melissa Felder Zappala is no stranger to success. A partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, she is named on the National Law Journal’s 2015 DC Rising Stars list of 40 lawyers under age 40 in the Washington, DC area. Zappala is also named on Super Lawyers’ 2014 and 2015 Rising Stars list.
Zappala is deaf. At age one she was diagnosed with profound bilateral sensineural hearing loss. Doctors told her parents that she would likely never communicate orally. Nonetheless, Zappala received a mainstream education, using an array of tools to not only succeed but also to thrive academically. Zappala used speech and auditory training, a personal amplification (FM) system, hearing aids, lip reading and transcripts. She attributes part of her academic success to her deafness. “I truly need to pay attention when others speak to get the benefits of lip reading, and I can’t let my mind wander!”
Zappala graduated magna cum laude from Yale University and made Phi Beta Kappa along the way. She later graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law School and was admitted to the Order of the Coif. After graduating law school she received a cochlear implant, but continues to utilize a hearing aid in her other ear.
Zappala’s practice focuses on complex commercial litigation. Her days are never the same. “One day I might be preparing for a deposition and the next day taking that deposition. Another day I might be researching and drafting a brief, and yet another day might have me meeting and conferring with opposing counsel.” While Zappala admits her hours can be long, the variety of her work and her colleagues make for an enjoyable career.
Zappala credits her growth as an attorney to the accommodating nature of her firm and her colleagues. Her firm provides her with real time captioning or teleconferences, and she gets real time feeds while appearing in court. While the technology does occasionally fail, issues are quickly resolved. She recalls informal mentors at her firm being willing to discuss her career and ways she could improve. In fact, the firm has encouraged her to do things that others might not think a deaf person can do, such as presenting oral argument and taking depositions.
Zappala knows firsthand the importance of accessible technology for people with disabilities. In 2012 she worked pro bono with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to bring suit on behalf of a deaf individual against the District of Columbia l for posting videos on its and third-party hosting websites (e.g., You Tube) that either had no captions or unintelligible ones. Deaf residents were unable to access information about DC services and benefits. As a result of the litigation, the District of Columbia agreed to issue a Mayoral Order requiring the District to caption or provide transcripts for videos.
In regards to whether the legal profession is creating a welcoming environment for persons with disabilities, Zappala thinks “the legal profession is starting to become more cognizant of disability as a component of diversity and starting to truly encourage people with disabilities to become members of the profession.”