Tara C. Fappiano spent 20 years as a trial attorney, including 14 years as an equity partner at a boutique insurance defense firm. Her practice focused on the defense of business managers, property managers, and other commercial property occupants in injury cases. She also handled toxic tort and environmental litigation, business tort claims, and employment compliance issues.
In 2019, she left the firm to follow her passion, opening her own practice focused on advocacy in special education and disability law. She also joined a smaller insurance defense firm, working part-time to ensure a continued income, while getting her advocacy and dispute resolution practice off the ground. Using conflict resolution techniques and collaborative dispute resolution practices, she helps families with special needs members get the special education services they deserve. She also offers conflict management coaching and mediation for organizations, nonprofits, businesses, school districts, and related entities.
Carol Schiro Greenwald (CSG): After decades of a successful career as an in-demand litigator, why did you move to a new area of law?
Tara C. Fappiano (TCF): For years, I dealt with special education issues on behalf of my own son and pro bono for friends while working professionally as an insurance defense litigator. I grew increasingly unhappy in my professional career, so I made an intentional decision to follow my passion. The determination to open my own firm focused on special education issues grew out of my self-analysis as I prepared my mission statement, the culmination of a 10-month leadership class through Volunteer New York!, the leading volunteer-engagement agency in Westchester County and the lower Hudson Valley.
CSG: How do you balance your time between the insurance defense work and building your new practice?
TCF: Insurance defense work requirements give structure to my days and provide an ongoing income as I build up my new firm. There is a cyclical nature to special education issues which follows the school-year cycle. Spring is a very busy time because that is when parents begin the annual review process to get the special education services that their child will need in the next school year.
CSG: What distinctive skill sets do you bring to the table?
TCF: I can help my clients because I know how to use the education system’s rules to my advantage, and while still playing within those guidelines, find areas of flexibility to exploit. Parents are often so exasperated by the time I meet them that they want to litigate, “blow up the system.” Having been a professional litigator, I know what that process means in terms of client stress and angst. So, I turn them back to negotiation and mediation.
I also have the advantage of being a player in this system for years as the parent of a special needs child, and past president, vice president, and chair of the Tuckahoe PTA Special Education Committee. In those capacities, I worked on many committees in the district, and led initiatives that supported parents and educators alike. As a leader and spokesperson for special education, I worked with the education system professionals and developed strong personal relationships with them. I know how they operate and what the limitations and restrictions of the system are.
CSG: How have you built your practice?
TCF: My first client was a referral from an advocate colleague. Now I get most of my clients from referrals from parents and educators within the school community. I tell everyone what I am doing, and supplement my in-person conversations with postings on Facebook, other social media parent groups, and LinkedIn groups. Surprisingly, a major source of referrals are attorneys who were adversaries at my old firm, and now send their clients with special education concerns to me.
CSG: What is your most effective marketing activity?
TCF: Networking and relationship building. I use the opportunities provided by the groups I am active in to increase my visibility. For example, I am now on the board of Volunteer New York! and active as an alumna of Leadership Westchester. I also use bar association meetings and CLEs as opportunities to tell attorney colleagues what I am doing, because I recognize the value of attorney referrals. My son is now in college, but I still stay in touch with the school PTA’s activities and remain friendly with the school district leadership.
CSG: How do you close a sale?
TCF: Parents find me when their conversations with the school district have broken down. They are at a crisis point and need help. Signing them up as a client is the culmination of a process that begins when they reach out to me. I set up a 10-15 minute phone call or Zoom meeting. In that first call, I highlight my approach, my background, and why I might be the right person to help them. I ask them about their issues and their objectives. We don’t discuss money.
I follow up with a proposal outlining the scope of service, and what my fees will be, whether a flat fee or something different, which I determine on a case-by-case basis. Once they sign the proposal and make the initial payment, we begin to work together.
Most prospects become clients. If they do say “no thanks,” or their circumstances change, I send them a thank you note for considering me, and then follow up a month later to see how they are doing.
CSG: How much time do you devote to marketing activities?
TCF: Not enough. I try to set aside two to three hours a month for planning time. I am constantly on the lookout for chances to speak or write about special education issues. I also spend time building my resource network of professionals in complementary legal fields such as family law, trust and estates, and personal injury practice areas, as well as Realtors, architects, contractors, therapists, etc. These resources enable me to help my clients resolve subsequent issues related to their special needs decisions.
CSG: How did the pandemic affect your plans?
TCF: It created major obstacles because schools closed and in-person activities evaporated. With no way to grow my desired practice, I shifted to conflict resolution in other areas. I offered services to anyone looking to mediate a dispute, or who could benefit from conflict resolution training. I offered consulting services to nonprofits, boards, employers, and other organizations looking to proactively learn ways to avoid conflict.
I increased my own training during this time and looked for more virtual opportunities. I am a volunteer neutral in the Pilot Presumptive Mediation Program of the Supreme Court, Bronx County. I am also active in several relevant groups: the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Disability Rights Bar Association, and Mediate.Com.
CSG: What advice would you give other women who want to build their own business?
TCF: I would tell them not to be afraid to be themselves. Successful rainmakers are authentic, empathetic, and confident in their own experience and expertise. They know that the way to build trust is to help the other person feel comfortable, understood, and heard.
Also, know that the process takes time. Build to your strengths. Don’t try to do everything all at once. Pace yourself. Finally, be confident in the knowledge of your own value, and be assertive about showing it.
About the Author
Carol Schiro Greenwald, Ph.D. is a networking, marketing, and management strategist, coach, trainer, speaker, and author. She is the author of Strategic Networking for Introverts, Extroverts and Everyone in Between (ABA Law Practice Division, 2019). Carol can be reached at 914.834.9320 or carol@csgMarketingPartners.com