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Carrying on an old family tradition

December 30, 2015

When Len and Mario Zappia were admitted to practice law in 1990, they followed in the footsteps of older relatives who’d entered the profession, but they also had inspiration from elsewhere.

Zappia Len Zappia

“It’s not as glamorous as ‘L.A. Law’ was,” Len Zappia said of his career as a South Bend attorney – one of four related Zappias practicing in St. Joseph County. His cousin Mario admits that along with family, “What drew me to law was watching ‘Perry Mason’ all the time.”

Len and Mario Zappia were admitted to practice in October 1990. Both handle primarily family law cases and shared reflections on a quarter-century in law as Indiana Lawyer likewise passes a 25-year milestone.

“I don’t know where the time has gone,” Mario said. “Now I’m one of the elders of the bar. It’s been fascinating.

Zappia Mario Zappia

“You used to hear, ‘We do things on a handshake around here.’ I just got in on the edge of those times,” he said.

“It’s certainly a lot tougher now. … I tend to think the better days of the profession are behind us,” Len said. He said his career has been rewarding, but he acknowledged he talked his undergraduate son out of going to law school, encouraging him instead to pursue medical school.

Mario agreed with prevailing sentiments on the profession revealed in the recent IL Practicing Law in Indiana survey of more than 500 attorneys. “I’m glad I got in when I did. I’m not sure I’d do it again,” he said.

Over their years in practice, technology has made work easier in some respects. Computerization and attorney advertising are the biggest changes Len said he’s seen over his quarter-century in practice.

“Lawyers were still typing documents and would have triplicates,” he recalled of the zenith of carbon-copy technology in use when he began practicing.

“I remember just getting a fax machine,” Mario recalled of the cutting-edge technology coming out of law school. He also remembers the office’s first cell phone: “It was in a big briefcase with the cord going to the briefcase.”

Len said when he began practicing, he advertised right away, but in the early 1990s, the forum of choice was the Yellow Pages. “Back then, a lot of senior lawyers, older lawyers that had been around a while, advertising was frowned upon.

“Before advertising, you had to go out and really market yourself, join organizations, clubs; you really had to network,” he said.

The Zappias had a network connection in Mario’s older brother, Anthony, who’d made a name for himself as an attorney in South Bend, and who the younger attorneys said built a good reputation and helped open some doors. Mario worked for his older brother out of law school and said he was lucky to have him as a mentor.

“I just finished my 39th year,” Anthony said. “Fortunately, God has blessed me with good health. … I’m very proud of my brother’s accomplishments and very proud of my first cousin. They’re both excellent lawyers.”

Anthony has done a fair amount of family law practice as well as mediation, and served 10 years on the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission.

“The practice of law to me has been extremely rewarding because I’ve had the opportunity to help people,” he said. “It’s had a greater impact on people’s lives than I thought it would.”

Like Anthony did for Mario, Len provided guidance to his younger brother, Loris, when he came out of law school and was admitted to practice in 1993. The two practiced together until 2002. “He was a great mentor during that time,” Loris said.

“I just pretty much fell into it,” Loris said of his career in law. “I think it was in the genes, really.”

The Zappia family story in St. Joseph County begins as a classic immigrant tale. Anthony and Mario described their parents as hard-working and carving out a piece of the American Dream after arriving from Italy.

Anthony said his father, Joe, arrived on Ellis Island at age 6 before settling in Mishawaka. He lived through the Great Depression and fought for his adoptive country in World War II. The Zappias’ grandfather was an attorney in Naples who died at a young age, but they have an uncle still in the profession in the old country.

Mario said his father and mother, Tina, worked in the restaurant business for more than 40 years and instilled a strong work ethic. They used to cater Notre Dame banquets, he said.

“Our parents were hard-working people who came from modest means,” Anthony said. “Lenny and Loris’ family were the same way. Nobody got handed anything. Whatever you garnered and received, you had to work extremely hard for.”

Now an attorney at Anderson Agostino & Keller P.C. in South Bend who focuses on personal injury and plaintiff advocacy, the youngest Zappia attorney, Loris, also works part time in the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office. He’s particularly fond of participating in the problem-solving drug and veterans courts. “I’m very fortunate to have the ability to actually help people,” he said. “That is what makes getting ready for work every morning worth it.

“If we can change one life, we can change a generation.”

Loris said St. Joseph County was an early adopter of problem-solving courts, which was a dramatic change in practice. “It was so unusual at the time to give drug offenders breaks,” he said.

Likewise, Anthony and Mario said the increasing use of mediation has been a welcome change personally and professionally.

“I try to focus on what’s best for the kids and tell clients, ‘This is what you need to do,’” Mario said. He said he’s fortunate enough in his practice to be able to part ways with clients who can’t focus on what’s best for their children.

“I enjoy doing mediation,” he said. “This process doesn’t have to be an adversarial process. … You can get what you’re entitled to and be peaceful and amicable and you don’t have to be a jerk about the whole process.”

Loris said he and Mario were fortunate to have their older brothers’ guidance and thinks something similar could help the future of the profession, even though it wouldn’t be family.

“One thing law school does not teach you is how to interact with clients and work with the court system,” he said. “Nowadays, I think there should be some sort of mentoring system.”•

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