Of the Bar exams

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

It’s the season of the Bar reviews, with the Bar examinations a mere four months away. The yearly cycle of new graduates badmouthing the Supreme Court and the torture that is the Bar exams thus goes on. However, the truth of the matter is this: the Bar exams are here, accept it. And pass it.

For the "Bar" has to be passed, no two ways about it. Those eight exams spell the difference between wasting four years of your life and being labeled "ah-tur-neh" for the rest of it. To a degree I find baffling, our society has put an inordinate premium on lawyers over that of scientists, entrepreneurs, and thinkers (and definitely contrary to what people think, not all lawyers are thinkers) such that thousands every year attempt to join the so-called "noble profession" without first contemplating if they’re actually fit to be lawyers. Good ones, I mean. Recent passing levels range from around 16-30%, with last year’s Bar exams registering a generous (and quite charitable) figure of 24.58%. This means that three out of the four people you see in the Bar review room will fail. The mortality rate is even higher for those who didn’t pass the first time around.

I was an Examiner for Political Law and Public International Law for the 2009 Bar exams. I was awed by the assignment and indeed found it difficult. However, the difficulty was not with the fact that I had to check 50-100 booklets every day for the next five months. No. It was the surprise and disappointment I felt at the quality of the answers given by the examinees.

Considering the bookstores, cable television, and Web sites available to them, a number of examinees displayed a profoundly unsatisfactory command of the English language (don’t even bother complaining: constitutionally, English is an official language of ours). Many examinees showed difficulty complying with the rules of grammar (and logic) necessary to properly explain legal concepts or express coherent thought. To pick a random example: question Part II, No.16, of the Political Law exam contained the question "If you were to judge this case, will you exonerate [defendant]?" was met by numerous (and I mean numerous) answers of "Yes, I will exonerate her as she is guilty." How anybody could graduate from law school without knowing the meaning of the word "exonerate" is beyond me. This is not to mention the appalling writing style adopted by most examinees, which verges on the pompous or pretentious.

More importantly, a quite extensive number of examinees are not familiar, oftentimes are frighteningly unaware, of the basics of public international law and its (along with foreign laws) relationship with domestic law. This is significant considering the increasingly globalized world that the Philippine legal profession has to engage, with perhaps no field of local law remaining untouched by international law. Furthermore, a sizeable number of examinees displayed a marked lack of confidence or trust in our domestic law, even at times expressing the highly erroneous idea that our Constitution and laws and our citizens are or should be subservient to international law or the dictates of the international community or organizations. This betrays an ignorance of the fact that the proper functioning of international law precisely lies in states energetically asserting their interests and being confident of their sovereign rights.

This also indicates why the Philippines has a seeming problem with regard to its international relations or commitments. Not only do we have a scarcity of lawyers practicing or studying international law, the few who do seem to have this bizarre (and highly misguided) fixation that international law, institutions, or commitments should override or have priority over that of our own domestic law, institutions, or interests. Hence the impression of the general public (rightly in my view) of trade treaties being overly generous to our trading partners or peace agreements that are obviously detrimental to our national sovereign objectives.

Finally (and interestingly), most examinees displayed a patent absence of any sense of principle or consistent philosophy in their answers. While the same has its advantages and disadvantages (i.e., in terms of intellectual flexibility), nevertheless, what is also noticeable is the examinees’ lack of commitment or adherence to any idea of strengthening Philippine institutions. Instead, the examinees seem to have emphatically formed a high degree of devotion to individual freedoms but without attaching any purpose, direction, or corresponding duties to the same.

I really hope that public international law (as well as conflicts of law) be given greater units en route to getting the Bachelor of Laws degree. We really need more lawyers who can defend the interests of the Republic with greater competency. And we need more teachers smart enough to ably put into the minds of our law students the necessity of a moral compass, and that our lawyer’s oath and legal ethics are not a mere jumble of words but a way of life.