Howard Talenfeld. (Melanie Bell)
As a salesman in college, Howard Talenfeld got used to getting doors to open and finding opportunities. It taught him tenacity.
It’s also how he got his first job in the law. But that’s not where he was headed when he left Pittsburgh for college in upstate New York.
“I was a little unsure. I loved the sciences. I also loved math. And then I was also a high school debater,” he said. He won a chemistry contest and a state debate competition.
He went to Hamilton College “thinking about a medical career,” he said. But he had a weakness. “I couldn’t see the difference between sodium burning yellow and potassium burning blue. I realized I might understand concepts, but I didn’t have the observational skills.
“It had to be law,” he said.
In his sophomore year, he joined his family in Fort Lauderdale for spring break.
“When I got back to Hamilton the snow was seven feet high, over my head,” he said. “I had a revelation: I wanted to live in Miami. So I transferred to UM.”
When he got to the University of Miami, his father told him he should learn to sell. He listened. He started selling office equipment door to door.
“I learned a thick skin knocking on doors in old office buildings in downtown Miami,” he said. “That really was a skill builder more than debate or anything else, learning how to sell. Dad was right. Dad was very right.”
The son never forgot the lesson.
“How did I get my first jobs in the practice of law? I knocked on doors,” he said. “While everybody was sending out letters, I knocked on doors. And every other accomplishment was really because I would go where no man would go. If the door said ‘No salesmen’ or ‘Do not solicit’ I still knocked on the door.”
When Talenfeld graduated, attorney Burton Young offered him a job that he could have as soon as he passed the Bar exam. Talenfeld accepted. Then he got a call.
“They dissolved right before I was supposed to start,” he said. He was studying at UM when he heard. He ran down to where firms posted want ads at school, grabbed one and went knocking.
The firm was Colodny Fass. He became a name partner two years later, thanks at least in part to Young.
Talenfeld wound up facing Young in a divorce case. “That was his sweet spot,” Talenfeld said. But Talenfeld won “a fairly significant hearing.”
Young found Michael Colodny outside the courtroom right after.
“Burton Young walked up to him and said, ‘I made a mistake once. If you don’t make him a partner, I’m hiring him back. And that’s what happened — exactly. It became Colodny, Fass and Talenfeld immediately after that.”
Talenfeld wound up representing the city of Golden Beach for the firm, taking on major litigation. In 1988, Florida’s Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services asked the firm to represent it. He began representing the state in a series of federal lawsuits involving foster care, mental health, juvenile justice and disabilities.
It had a personal appeal. “I have a disabled sister, and this is the agency that took care of developmentally disabled children and adults who had psychiatric illnesses at a time when Florida was besieged by class action lawsuits in every area,” he said.
Talenfeld fought not to defend the programs as they existed but to protect the state’s right to improve them.
“We argued that Florida was committed to fixing them,” he said. “So what happened was, not only was I making the argument to federal courts, but I was making the same arguments to fund the money and appropriate the money to the Florida Legislature through the governor’s office.”
Then in 1994, he said, “There was a change politically in the leadership of HRS.” Talenfeld stopped representing the state. He went back to handling commercial litigation at the firm and joined the national board of the Youth Law Center child advocacy group.
“When I went on the board I realized there was only one way to consistently fight for the rights of children and the disabled, and that was to work with the advocacy groups that were bringing these cases nationally,” he said.
In 1998, he served as co-lead counsel in a Broward County foster care class action that led to a settlement that he said nearly tripled the child welfare system budget to $75 million.
“I also started filing individual damage claims for these kids as well as the injunctive case,” he said. “I did other kinds of pro bono work dealing with the disabilities community.”
Then came another revelation.
“I realized that Florida needed an army of child advocates, attorneys and guardians to fight for the rights of children,” Talenfeld said.
He founded Florida’s Children First and became its first board president in 2002.
But Florida children were not his only concern. He helped win a combined $26 million in settlements for foster children abused in what a judge called a “house of horrors” foster home in New York.
In 2014, he left Colodny Fass to form his own firm dedicated to child welfare and disabilities.
“My passion was to do that. I had to figure out how to do that,” he said. “We take impact cases. Some cases will prevail financially. Others might not.”