Making It Work

Surpassing expectations, defying labels: Life as a deaf attorney and working mother

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Photo of Melissa Felder Zappala courtesy of Boies Schiller Flexner.

Though people who know me today might assume it was a foregone conclusion that I would be a lawyer—both my father and grandfather were lawyers—this was far from the case. When I was 1, my parents learned I was deaf. A doctor warned them that I would likely never learn to speak, and that I would not read past a fourth-grade level.

This prognoisis—now obviously incorrect—caused me to attribute much of my success to a work ethic that drove me, from a young age, to defy those early expectations. From nursery school to high school, I constantly worked with auditory therapists to improve my speech and hearing. In every class, I sat in the front row and used an amplification system—known an FM system—to make sure I could understand my teachers. My college and law school provided me with a court reporter who transcribed lectures for me in real time. Fast-forward a decade or two, and I am now a litigation partner at Boies Schiller Flexner.

Some of the challenges I have faced in my life and career as a deaf attorney may not seem universally relatable; however, at my core, I am just a working mother trying to find success both at home and at my job in an extremely demanding field. I truly believe the keys to finding that balance are universal to any lawyer or business professional.

First, my simplest point. This profession requires hard work and perseverance—most of which is far from glamorous. In litigation especially, the work can be tedious and the hours long. I attribute my success to the fact that I have always been a hard worker, dedicated to the quality of my work (even the tedious parts), and willing to go the extra mile for a case. Ultimately, the exciting moments of practicing law can’t be found without rolling up your sleeves and putting in the hard work.

Second, I learned that if there are specific responsibilities you crave or matters you want to work on, ask for them. Make your ambitions known to people who can help create opportunities for you, and be your own advocate. I am lucky enough to work at a firm that is incredibly supportive of my career and the specific interests I have voiced. Not only does Boies Schiller provide the technology that allows me to succeed in my practice, like captioning on calls, I was also encouraged to take on new and different responsibilities as a young lawyer, including those that my childhood doctor wouldn’t have predicted me doing, such as oral arguments or taking depositions.

Third, I can’t overstate the importance of truly listening—in a deposition, in court or in a conversation with a colleague. It seems simple, but as lawyers we sometimes mistakenly feel too busy to hit pause and actively listen. In a deposition, for example, it can be easy to tick through a list of prepared questions without really concentrating on the content of the answer you were given. Since I need to both listen and lip-read at the same time, I am uniquely focused on deponents’ answers. Listening carefully allows me to pick up on details that others might miss, and follow up as needed.

Fourth, make the time to nurture personal relationships. I have yet to meet anyone capable of succeeding in both spaces entirely on their own. I am fortunate to have an incredibly supportive wife who—despite also working full time–is the primary caregiver to our 2 ½-year-old daughter and soon-to-be-born son. Having her support has been the most important component, enabling me to navigate the challenges of being a working parent while pursuing my career goals. As we work together to find a balance that fits our family, I’ve found that setting priorities and boundaries is key. For example, I make it a priority to be home with my family before our daughter goes to bed. For all of us, this time is so important—even if it means I log back on to work later at night or wake up earlier to get things done.

It takes a lot of hard work to succeed in our profession—especially as women with families—but it’s important to remember that you’re never doing it alone. Put in the hard work, ask for what you want, and don’t be afraid to ask for support.

Melissa Felder Zappala is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, where she specializes in complex commercial litigation. She is on the National Law Journal’s 2015 DC Rising Stars list of 40 lawyers under age 40 and on Super Lawyers’ 2014 and 2015 Rising Stars lists.

Making It Work is a column in partnership with the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women initiative in which lawyers share how they manage both life’s challenges and work’s demands. Visit for more.

This article was published in the January 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title “Surpassing Expectations, Defying Labels.”

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