It’s All Relative
One day, in the spring of 2016, Columbia Law School Lecturer in Law Sophia Bernhardt needed a substitute instructor for her Legal Practice Workshop course, which she had been teaching since the start of the fall semester. She had just given birth, and, although on maternity leave from her job as trial supervisor at Brooklyn Defender Services, she only planned to miss a single class with her students.
Sophia Bernhardt knew just the person to call: Her mom.
Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt ’88, a white-collar defense attorney at Cohen & Gresser in New York, has been a Legal Practice Workshop lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School for more than a decade (the course is part of the foundational curriculum for first-year students and provides intensive training in research, writing, and analytical skills). And there’s another Bernhardt on the faculty too: Doris Bernhardt ’05, Sophia’s older sister. An assistant corporation counsel in the affirmative litigation division of the New York City Law Department, she has co-led the Representing N.Y.C. – N.Y.C. Law Department externship for several years (her co-lecturer is Stephen Louis ’80, chief of the legal counsel division in the New York City Law Department).
“It was very convenient,” laughs Sophia Bernhardt, describing the day her mom stepped in for her in class. “I had this really great sub who was also my mother.”
The Bernhardts are not the first mother-daughter faculty members at Columbia Law School—Professor Jane C. Ginsburg’s mother, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, was a professor at Columbia Law from 1972-1980—but they are the first to be teaching at the same time. Since 2016-2017, all three Bernhardts have been on campus as instructors The familial connection still tends to surprise and delight students.
In her second year teaching, Sophia Bernhardt says some of her students asked if she knew there were other Bernhardts teaching on campus.
“I said, ‘Yes, I do, and, in fact, we’re related,’” she recalls. “They were tickled by it.”
The Bernhardts don’t see each other on campus that often—“occasionally in the elevator or lobby,” says Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt—but it’s a familiar stomping ground for them all.
Sophia and Doris grew up in Morningside Heights and regularly met their mom on campus when she was a law student (Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt also earned a BA in English from Barnard College in 1966 and an MA and Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1969 and 1977, respectively).
Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt says she occasionally had to take her daughters to class with her—she recalls they were particularly interested in Corporate Tax because “they both knew arithmetic.”
“It’s normal for me to associate my mom with the Law School,” says Doris Bernhardt. “For a three-year chunk of my childhood, she was a law student.”
Because they teach different classes, Doris Bernhardt and Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt aren’t able to bounce ideas off each other the way Sophia and Elizabeth do. But they have another bond to lord over Sophia: Unlike her mother and sister, who are both Columbia Law School alumni, Sophia Bernhardt earned her law degree from New York University School of Law where she was the recipient of the prestigious Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Scholarship.
“I wanted her to go to Columbia,” Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt admits, laughing. “Of course, she got in. I felt that it was a little bit traitorous of her not to.”
Still, one thing the Bernhardts share is a love of teaching.
“It reinvigorates my interest in my own work,” says Doris Bernhardt.
For Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt, teaching was her “first love”; she taught English at the university level before going to law school and says the connection between her work as an attorney and her work in the classroom is her role as a “helpful guide” for clients and students.
“I think my strength as a teacher, and my strength as a lawyer, too, is that I’m really interested in people as individuals,” she says
She has seen both her daughters in the classroom and says they are “very good” teachers (the talent might run in the family—their father, William Bernhardt, is an English professor at the City University of New York).
Elizabeth Farber Bernhardt says she was happy to sub for Sophia after her daughter gave birth but adds, “Getting me, I’m sure, was second best.”
Or maybe third.
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Published on October 24, 2018