William Fedullo, the personal injury lawyer who takes over as Philadelphia bar chancellor Jan. 1, has a reputation as a consensus builder who connects with clients and opposing attorneys, a trait that helped him fashion settlements in courtroom disputes where adversaries often are separated by wide differences and heated emotions.
It is a quality that he will need if he is to make progress on his goal of having the Philadelphia Bar Association help forge a solution to the city School District's chronic money shortages.
Fedullo, whose wife, Shelli, is a lawyer and former schoolteacher, laid out his proposal Tuesday in his inaugural address before 500 city lawyers and judges at the bar association's annual meeting. He said he has since been deluged with e-mails and phone calls from people asking what they can do to help.
"I don't care what political stripe you are, educating children is important to everybody," Fedullo said in an interview later. "It would cure so many of the ills of our society if we did that."
Public schools in Philadelphia began the year amid shuttered facilities, layoffs, and program cuts, the aftermath of several years of state funding reductions. Some of the cuts were restored when the state agreed to provide a onetime infusion of $45 million in October. But the crisis is expected to continue next year because the district is spending more than it is taking in.
Fedullo said he has no fixed ideas about how to solve the problem, but said that at the very least the School District will need a funding commitment from state and local government that covers basic educational costs so the district will not be forced each year to make the legislative rounds, hat in hand. He has appointed a bar association task force headed by Common Pleas Court Judge John Younge, and said the goal is to have preliminary findings by May. The idea is to use the political weight of the bar association to push for a solution.
"I would like to see kids coming out [of school] with skills; I would like to see kids learning what it is like to interview for a job and having a reading level in compliance with their grade level," he said. They should know, he said, "that their teachers and staff care about them, and beyond that, that the business and legal community care."
School funding battles here and elsewhere can be nasty, with needy urban centers pitted politically against better-funded jurisdictions in the suburbs. The rhetoric can be harsh. But Fedullo seems to have no problem wearing his heart on his sleeve. During his bar association speech Tuesday, he halted midway, apparently overcome with emotion, as he recalled his late father. He teared up again briefly during an interview the following day.
"He is very connected to his emotions, not afraid to cry, and not afraid to take life and the people he comes in touch with on a very basic level," said his longtime friend and former law partner, John Savoth, himself a former bar chancellor. "We all put on a mask and a guard, and folks in my profession have a tendency to turn into a machine, where Bill is so in touch with the human element. I don't know anyone else like Bill Fedullo."
Savoth said that Fedullo, who ran unopposed for bar chancellor, engenders trust and that has helped him to bring together adversaries to find common ground.
"I can't count the number of times where people, both sides in the middle of disputes, have reached out to Bill to try and solve it," Savoth said.
The man who will begin a one-year term as bar chancellor on Jan. 1 is a native Philadelphian. His father owned a bar at Broad and Tasker Streets when Fedullo was young, and the family lived upstairs.
The family moved to Brigantine, N.J., but eventually moved back to Philadelphia, where Fedullo attended high school and graduated from Temple University before going to Delaware Law School, now Widener University Law School.
But for a handful of criminal defense cases shortly after law school, Fedullo has spent much of his career suing insurance companies and doctors and others on behalf of clients who allege they were harmed.
He spent much of that time as a solo practitioner, but now is with the personal injury firm of Rosen, Schafer & DiMeo L.L.P. He's been active for years in bar association politics, first through the Justinian Society, the organization of Italian American lawyers, and then through the bar association itself. His music tastes tend toward Sinatra, Springsteen, and Smokey Robinson. But he's most passionate when talking about city schools and fixing the funding crisis.
"We have to try and if we don't, knowing what the cost is, we are not fulfilling what we are supposed to do," he said.
WILLIAM P. FEDULLO
Of counsel with Rosen, Schafer & DiMeo L.L.P.
Resides in Center City with wife Shelli.
Graduated from Temple University and Delaware Law School, now Widener University Law School.
Quote: "The grinding poverty that some kids have to live through is devastating and it is not fair. And the only fairness we can bring about is through the school system to make sure that when they go to school they are getting a fair chance."