Lawyers, as far as much of Philippine society is concerned, are characters sufficiently compelling to deserve their own mythology. The figure of the abogado de campanilla, whom everyone expects to be clad in a barong or a flashy suit most of the time, commands respect and awe. Young lawyers like myself are expected to maintain the standards and keep up with the traditions of the profession: Be sharp, be smart, and, if needed, be shrewd.
Four letters (and a dot) before one’s name make all the difference in the fate of an individual living in a country obsessed with titles and an unspoken esteem for those learned in the law. A lawyer, once ushered into the web of inevitable entanglements with Attorney This or Judge That, is expected to go through life materially with relative ease. Take care of your client and you will be taken care of in return. Zealousness to the cause of the client, as it is called in the classroom.
As a T-shirt-clad, sneakers-wearing millennial who hardly fits the plaster cast of the average Filipino lawyer, I find myself struggling the most with reconciling two things that I sense are at odds today. There appears to be a dissonance between Filipinos’ reverence for their abogados and the tragic complicity of some of them to the rapid decline of the rule of law. This year appears to be the year of lawyering dangerously: Defending the rule of law has in itself become risky business.
Expressing dissent and defending democracy fetch a heavy price these days, as bodies and blood pump up an economy of death. On an institutional scale, battle lines are being drawn between those enjoying power and those persecuted by it. Most recently, the Supreme Court itself—the final frontier of the constitutional order—has been placed under the scrutiny of the public eye. All of these are symptoms of a sudden atrophy of the rule of law; in its stead stands now the law of men and the rules of their modern jungle.
How does one make sense out of the madness that is lawyering in present-day Philippines?
The possibilities are virtually endless for young lawyers today. The privilege that is our education and our license to practice law allow us to land opportunities to secure our individual futures and that of our family. But what is a bright, though isolated, future when it is cast against a dark and uncertain world? Working our way through the multiple ladders rolled out by the profession should not be a choice between security and ideals. Both can be achieved, if desire for stability is informed by the necessity to give back, and idealism is tempered by good judgment. In a sense, we must look beyond the false dichotomies thrust to us at the beginning of our career.
During the oath-taking earlier this year of the successful takers of the 2016 bar examination, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno issued a directive to “dampen the decibel of discord,”
so that a conversation on the definition of justice can be
had among Filipinos. The personal politics of young lawyers today ought to be manifest as a blueprint for ordinary citizens: These should center on the idea of justice as a true possibility. After all, before we are advocates for our clients, we are advocates of the law itself.
This is the year of lawyering dangerously. Not only are individual lawyers put to the task of being constantly prepared and ready to take on the cause of their clients, they are also charged with being living reminders to the public of what the law stands for. Lawyers also pay a price of being in the profession. At this point in my early career, I have been at the receiving end of body shots and quick quips against lawyers. Today’s newsmakers, after all, are mostly members of the legal profession; they range from good to bad and in between, all for better or for worse. In so many words, lawyers are at the front and center of the battle for the fate of the Philippines today.
I became a lawyer in the middle of these interesting times, and it is a destiny I have no choice but to pursue. As the days unfold, I try — my attempts imperfect as they are — to be a bright spot in this oft-maligned profession. Giving back as a lawyer means returning the power of the law to the people.
The generations that will come after us will know exactly what makes for a good or bad lawyer as they look back on this era of our history. While we may not be gifted with the foresight of how that will play out, we must at least play a part of forging it. We must show them what a good lawyer is and ought to be. Zealousness, but at a whole new level, one that is directed to the greatest cause of all: the future.
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Ross Tugade, 27, is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Law and works in the field of human rights