If one says that life in the Philippines is dominated by lawyers, one is at once stating a truth and recognizing a tragedy. Indeed, while the lives of other nations are shaped by those who contribute directly to economic prosperity—visionaries, entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors—our nation is ruled by a profession that mainly traffics in words and lives off the economic value produced by others.
When the bar exam results were announced on Wednesday, the social media were abuzz with congratulations for friends, but some asked a perennial question: Why all the hoopla for the bar exam, but not for the board exam results for doctors, accountants, engineers, pharmacists, etc.? Why the fixation over one profession, and over a licensing test?
Indeed. After all, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had long ago said that “the black-letter man may be the man of the present, but the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics.” Why, in the 21st century, are we still enthralled by a profession that “do[esn’t] understand technology and balance sheets” and instead “hires out its words and its anger”?
The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves. We have yielded too much power to the government, and that power has found its way to the lawyers. Rather than rely on a free market, we have installed the state as the dispenser of wealth and business opportunities, and assigned the lawyers’ guild as the mediator. So why act surprised that they have aggrandized the power we surrendered to them?
But it isn’t just about power. It’s also about legitimacy. The Marcos dictatorship deglamorized the lawyers by idealizing the technocratic state, elevating an elite of number-crunchers backed by a corps of military bone-crushers. And that is why the heroes of the mainstream anti-Marcos movement were the human rights lawyers of the old FLAG and Mabini. Today, that poetic image of lawyering continues to inspire.
There is yet another, darker, side of the practicing bar. Far from being a secular priesthood, it is actually a Mafia-like web of classmates and schoolmates, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, with an overlay of feudal “barrio-tic” loyalties to kinsmen, provincemates and golf buddies, all scratching one another’s backs. They invest in these old-boy networks in school, and cash in on the connections once they pass the bar. Before, Lady Justice was blindfolded so that she would be neutral. Today, she wears the blindfold so she will not weep at the debasement of a noble calling.
Thus the continuing allure of the bar exam. It is not just the gatekeeper to a world of power and pelf; it is also the key legitimizer of the entire enterprise. Whoever enters must first earn the prize but, once in, the winner takes all.
That is why it is so difficult to reform the bar exams. Who cares if the questions entail the rote memorization of legal minutiae? Who cares if the scope changes often, and the exam style—essay or multiple-choice questions—gets recalibrated each year? Indeed, who cares that any exam, to start with, can scarcely measure the virtues of the heart, the impulse to do what is just, rather than the tendency to yank the law’s text away from its moral context?
What is important is that there be no leakage of the questions, no favoritism in the grading, and no manipulation of the passing score. For the bar exam, the highest value is the level playing field. Defile this rite of passage, and there will be hell to pay.
In the mid-1960s, reformers thought up a wonderful experiment. They stopped listing the top 10. The Supreme Court wanted to end the obsession for the “placing” of the candidates—and what better way than simply not to keep tabs?
Did it work? No, it didn’t, because the examinees and the public were so hungry for the rankings that they actually went around asking for people’s grades and making a list, which the newspapers then picked up. Since someone’s grade would inevitably be missed, the papers even posted updates and corrections. The cure was worse than the disease. Now just imagine all that, but with Facebook!
The legal profession and the bar exam provide a republican and meritocratic sheen to naked power. The winners of the bar exam ordeal have surely earned the right to rejoice and revel in their success. It is for them to always remember not just those loved ones who made it all possible but also the forlorn republic whose constitution and ideals made that dream worth dreaming.