Even when he was weak from battling cancer, Jacob “Jack” Zeldes couldn’t stay away from the firm he founded. Sometimes he would visit the office in person. And sometimes he was a digital presence.
“He would stay in touch by email,” said Max Medina, a partner at Zeldes, Needle & Cooper. “He loved the law. He loved practicing law and he loved his law firm. No matter how tough he was having it, he wanted to know how things were at the firm.”
Zeldes, 83, who practiced at the Bridgeport firm for 42 years, died September 18 at his home. The patriarch did not go quietly, his colleagues say. Medina said that Zeldes was sent to a hospice in May, but took one look around the facility and asked to go home. At that point, he was told by doctors he had only a few days or weeks to live, but he defied predictions. “In typical Jack fashion, he got better. He rallied. He started riding his exercise bike,” Medina said.
In his final months, friends and colleagues had to contact Zeldes’ daughter to set up a time to see him. “He was booked solid for weeks,” Medina said. Zeldes came to the office clambake in July and stayed in contact with members of the bar. “Between May and September, he had this final chapter that amazed everyone,” Medina said. “He was the leader of this firm all the way until the very end, and he’s going to remain our inspiration forever.”
Others in the legal community said that Zeldes was a memorable figure both inside and outside the courtroom.
When Michael Koskoff, of Bridgeport’s Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, became a lawyer in 1966, he said that Zeldes already had established himself as a “hero of the criminal defense bar in Connecticut.” Koskoff’s father and Zeldes were good friends. When Zeldes left Bridgeport’s Goldstein and Peck to co-found Zeldes, Needle & Cooper, the Koskoffs gave him some old office furniture and an early generation photocopier to help get the new firm get started. “They built their new firm from there into one of the most respected firms in the state,” said Koskoff.
In return, Zeldes would serve as a mentor during Michael Koskoff’s early years as a lawyer. Koskoff said Zeldes had a unique view of the law. “He not only respected it but he enjoyed it, not only for the vital role it played in protecting people’s rights but for its craziness and quirkiness as well.”
His clients included top political figures, judges, non-profit groups, business people and organized crime defendants like Francis “Fat Franny” Curcio. For Zeldes, the law was an endless source of pleasure and mystery. “He was a pack rat, storing away thousands of cases and relishing both the decisions and the stories behind the decisions,” Koskoff said. “His endless curiosity caused him to delve both deeply and widely into the context of the cases, politically, historically and personally.”
Steve Ecker, of Cowdery, Ecker & Murphy, in Hartford, said he met Zeldes about 20 years ago, when Ecker was a young lawyer at Jacobs, Grudberg, Belt & Dow in New Haven. “He was already a legend, a great lawyer. I was an inexperienced nobody, and he easily could have ignored me and gone about his business,” Ecker said. “Instead, he treated me as if I were important to him, like I was his peer and colleague and deserved the same respect as anyone else.”
Ecker continued: “Jack quickly learned that I had discovered the same source that he had found in New Haven for very inexpensive ties, a now-defunct discount fabric store called Horowitz Brothers. For years, every time we saw one another he would immediately examine my tie, look at me with a twinkle, and say ‘Horwitz’s?’
“As I watched him over the years, I saw that Jack treated everyone this way, he made everyone feel like they mattered. And the incredible thing is that everyone did matter to Jack.”
Zeldes’ firm never grew to be particularly large. The website currently lists about 20 attorneys, and most years it has hovered near the lower fringe of the Law Tribune’s annual list of the state’s 25 largest law firms, ranked by gross revenue. The firm makes no apologies for its size, using the slogan, “Large firm capabilities…small firm responsiveness.”
But even if his firm was giant-sized, Zeldes was regarded a giant of the bar. In an editorial in this week’s edition (see page 37), the Law Tribune’s Editorial Board noted that Zeldes was so well respected statewide that in 1983 he was chosen by the Connecticut House of Representatives to represent a Select Committee in the first impeachment proceeding ever to have been initiated against a Connecticut judge. He was also chosen as lead plaintiff in Jacob D. Zeldes, et al v. M. Jodi Rell, et al, a 2009 class action launched by leaders of the Connecticut bar when then-Governor Rell attempted to take $2 million from the state’s Client Security Fund and transfer it to the General Fund as part of a larger effort to address a state budget deficit.
Ecker and Ernie Teitell, of Silver Golub & Teitell, handled the Rell case. According to Ecker, they “represented a group of about 10 prominent lawyers as plaintiffs, people like Hugh Keefe, Willie Dow, Bill Davis, Hubert Santos, Hope Seeley, [and] Fred Ury. Originally we had listed the plaintiffs alphabetically, but the group wanted Jack listed first, in recognition of his undisputed role as the dean of the Connecticut bar.”
David Atkins, who practiced at Zeldes, Needle & Cooper from 1984 to 2007, said his former boss felt no need to be in the limelight. “He was a happy warrior, never discouraged by the long odds many of his clients faced. He relished the challenge of improving those odds by pushing back arbitrary or outdated boundaries of the law, and doing so with flair and creativity,” said Atkins, now at Pullman & Comley. “And as those who worked with him can attest, the ride he took us on always was a lot of fun.”•