Ophelia Bernal-Mora (left) with partner Andrew Nickolaou (center) meet with a client.
ORLANDO – Board certified family law attorney Ophelia Bernal-Mora's journey to the courtroom began with a serious arm injury she suffered as a little girl.
The young Bernal-Mora, who emigrated to the United States from Venezuela, watched some children play on the monkey bars at her elementary school playground. Like any child at that age, she wanted to climb them too.
"I got up there and I tried to go across and I fell," Bernal-Mora told the Florida Record. "I hurt myself."
According to Bernal-Mora, the school nurse discovered that the child’s left arm “quadrupled in size” and contacted her mother. Because she was at work at the time, Bernal-Mora’s grandmother picked her up.
A subsequent trip to the doctor’s office revealed that Bernal-Mora “fractured [her] arm in multiple places.”
“My grandmother, who I would describe as a ‘free spirit,’ was not very happy with the way things were handled so they got legal counsel,” she said. “So I got my first experience in the legal world and I kind of fell in love with it. I thought I could make a difference.”
The child who used to dress up as a lawyer with briefcase in tow on career days at school after the incident on the playground grew up to become the current youngest board certified family law attorney – out of 14 – in Orange County. Board certified since June 1, Bernal-Mora, who has practiced law for more than a decade, was among the fortunate seven out of 30 to ace the board certified exam last March.
She and husband Andrew Nickolaou are founding partners of the firm Bernal-Mora & Nickolaou, P.A. in Maitland. Nickolaou was the one who informed her about the distinction.
“I did not know that until Andrew said something,” said Bernal-Mora, a mother of three with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Florida and a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from Nova Southeastern University. “Honestly, I was really surprised … It feels nice because it makes me feel young … It’s nice that I accomplished it at a young age and with many years left in my career. It’s a really difficult thing to do, and a lot of people don’t realize what it takes to be board certified.”
The lone member of her family to pursue a non-mathematical career, Bernal-Mora explained that a board certified lawyer is one who a judge expects to “know their stuff.”
“It means I have been evaluated by my peers [and by] judges,” she said. “And [have] shown an expertise and specialty in my area. I am board certified in marital and family law.”
To apply for board certification in family law, stated Bernal-Mora, candidates have to complete a very lengthy application, litigate 25 contested cases in the five years preceding the application period and undergo a nearly six-month evaluation process prior to being able to sit for the exam.
Bernal-Mora said that the exam consists of five essay questions, 30 multiple choice questions and 25 short answer questions and lasts a total of six hours.
“You have to essentially know anything that has ever come up in the law dealing with marital and family law in the section of time through Dec. 31 of the year before you take the exam,” she said.
Given the “very rigorous” nature of the exam, not too many people pass it, according to Bernal-Mora.
“The judge has a higher expectation of me as opposed to the lawyer who is not board certified,” she said.
Nickolaou marveled at the hard work his spouse put into achieving board certification. He said that the couple, who partnered and formed their current firm in 2016 after Bernal-Mora ran a successful solo practitioner law firm since 2011, recently went to a convention in Boca Raton where she was honored.
“She’s definitely dedicated to family law,” he said. “She sacrificed a lot of time and effort. I think it’s certainly admirable. It’s not something that – at least here in the Orange County, Central Florida area – is very common, which you would think with the amount of family law attorneys that we have, that it would be something that these attorneys would strive and achieve for to become board certified.”
Bernal-Mora said that she is required to continue her legal education to remain board certified, as well as complete an application showing the cases she litigated.
As for the exam itself?
“Knock on wood, I’ll never have to take that test ever again,” she quipped.
For the young people who aspire to become attorneys, Bernal-Mora encouraged them to “actually figure out a way to become involved in it and see what it’s really like.”
“Go to the courthouse, go to the law firm, go to the state attorney’s office,” she said. “Go and actually volunteer and see what it’s really like.”
Unlike medical school, added Bernal-Mora, there are no residency programs in law school.