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Professor Joseph Koffler:
Inspiring Students for 50 Years

Professor Koffler with former student Judge Judith Scheindlin

Say “Professor Koffler” to virtually any New York Law School graduate and you get the same reaction—he was initially intimidating, but over time, brilliant and unforgettable.

Joseph Koffler came to New York Law School in 1950, two years after graduating from Harvard Law School. Since then, for generations of students, he has come to be the outstanding symbol of the Law School, a man whose dedication to the study of law and to the students he teaches is legendary.

In recognition of this exemplary career, Professor Koffler was honored with a special Trustees Award at last year’s graduation ceremony, and a scholarship has been established in his honor.

“When I talk to graduates anytime from the early ’50s to the early ’80s, there are two professors about whom every student inquires: Milton Silverman and Joe,” says Professor Michael Perlin. “Everyone has a Joe story, everyone recalls Joe teaching them torts, and everyone speaks with affection, admiration, and warmth. In all these years, there have been no exceptions.”

Though Joe Koffler has taught a number of courses at the Law School over the years, it is his torts class—the class he himself terms the “formative part” of the legal education experience—that remains indelibly etched in the minds of every first-year student. A skilled practitioner of the old-fashioned Socratic method, which requires a student to stand and recite in class and take the consequences if he or she is not adequately prepared, Professor Koffler has used the method brilliantly to create generations of lawyers.

“He’d come at you and people would be shaking, but the next time they’d be prepared. Soon his questions weren’t intimidating, they were challenging,” recalls Arthur Fisch ’75, now in private practice specializing in securities law. “His education was about teaching you how to act and think like a lawyer and to do it on your feet.”

Fred Wistow ’77 vividly recalls the terror —followed by awe, then respect, and the discovery that “he was one of the funniest people I ever met.”

"He taught us that each and every word in the law is critical, drumming into us the importance of understanding the nature of words, how their placement and interconnection could mean drastically different consequences,” Mr. Wistow recalls. “He really taught us how to be analytical.”

Mr. Wistow, who retired two years ago as general counsel for the Music Division at TimeWarner, has lunch with Professor Koffler several times a year. These are meetings he enjoys immensely.

“The sharpness of his mind seems totally unaffected by any slowing of his body,” marvels Mr. Wistow.

Twenty years later, Robin Wakefield ’99 repeated the experience of Fred Wistow, Arthur Fisch, and so many others and recalled a few intimidating moments from “the most inspirational teacher I ever had.”

“He never called anyone by name, so if he did ever use your name, you were in shock. I remember one of my friends telling me how she was glowing when, after what she felt was an especially penetrating point, Professor Koffler told her ‘she was on the periphery of brilliance.’ Then, he delivered the punchline: ‘You know, that means you just don’t get it!’”

Ms. Wakefield, who is in the Mayor’s Office of Contracts, vividly recalls the Koffler method of acting out the tort: “When I was taking the bar exam, it flashed in front of me—I don’t think I’ll ever forget him telling the student in the blue shirt to throw the punch, and the student in the white shirt to take it,” she says. “You know, one of my father’s friends had him in 1953 and he also remembers that!”

During the early 1970s, Professor Koffler was faculty advisor for Equitas, the New York Law School student newspaper. It was a time of political unrest, the height of the Vietnam protests, and Marvin Raskin ’72 recalls asking for Professor Koffler’s appointment because he felt he would be a strong defender of the newspaper’s right to free speech.

“We knew he was a great believer in the First Amendment,” recalls Mr. Raskin, who is the current chair of the Criminal Law Section of the Bronx Bar. “I remember the Dean coming in and saying that one of our editorials—it might have been our parody on Nixon and John Mitchell getting high—had resulted in a drop in alumni/ae giving. But Koffler was firm; he backed us again and again. He and Professor Silverman are my fondest memories of the Law School. Joe Koffler believed in his students, and I loved him for it.”

Sybil Shainwald ’76 was so sure she failed torts that she recalls not buying any second-year textbooks. When, in her final year, there was a decision made to increase the graduation requirement retroactively by three credits, she asked to present an argument against the new policy to the faculty. Dean Shapiro agreed, and she and three students developed an argument, with Ms. Shainwald assigned to do the summation.

“I went to Professor Koffler because I felt he had the students’ interests at heart. He was a bright, decent guy who had influence with the faculty. I figured he’d know what would be a winning argument and he’d help.”

Ms. Shainwald presented the case to Professor Koffler, who listened carefully and told her she didn’t stand a chance; the students wouldn’t win. He advised using a hardship argument instead.

“We listened to him and asked every student in the class for information about what having to get those extra three credits would mean,” recalls Ms. Shainwald, almost thirty years later. “We won, and I’m sure without him, we wouldn’t have.”

For his colleagues as well, Joe Koffler has become, as Professor Arthur Leonard puts it, “the personification of New York Law School tradition—it is hard to imagine New York Law School without him.”

“When I arrived at New York Law School in 1982, Joe Koffler loomed large as one of the most widely feared members of the faculty, at least on the part of students. But I also learned that as students came to know Joe, they found he had a heart of gold, and battled fiercely on their behalf,” recalls Professor Leonard. “My first professional contact with him was as a fellow member of the Academic Status Committee. What I saw was that nobody seemed more concerned or outspoken than Joe on the issue of due process for students. He frequently argued that a borderline student be given ‘just one more chance’ because he or she was capable of completing the program.”

Professor David Chang, who has known Joe Koffler for almost 20 years and whose grandfather, Maurice Joseph, was one of Professor Koffler’s first students, led the initiative for the new scholarship in his honor; it quickly raised $25,000 from New York Law School faculty and administration.

“He has been the most dedicated teacher we have. Everything he’s concerned about relates to the welfare of the students. He’s given his life to the school, and his spirit and commitment inspires all of us.”

For Dean Richard Matasar, who had not previously known Joe Koffler, the professor became someone he kept hearing about from alumni. Now, after two years, he says he understands why.

“To so many graduates, he personifies all that is best at NYLS; tough, demanding, soft at the core. In the last several years, he has become a senior statesman at the Law School. He has adapted to changes at the school and happily continued to challenge his students to reach their potential,” says Dean Matasar. “The time is clearly right to honor Professor Koffler in the best way we can, which is to perpetuate his name in the opportunities offered to generations of law students to come.”

As to his plans, Professor Koffler, who has devoted his whole career to teaching, with the exception of a two-year stint in private practice right after law school, will be in the classroom this fall, as he has been for the past 50 years.

It is a calling he finds endlessly challenging and totally absorbing.

“The most fascinating part of teaching is to see how students develop—and they always surprise me in how quickly they do so. I intend to keep teaching as long as I remain effective,” he says simply. “This law school has been and is now, under Dean Matasar, especially dedicated to providing students with the programs that will assist them to gain positions as lawyers and make them effective in this regard. I’m very excited about the next three years as some of the gains we’ve made will be effectively consolidated and advanced.”