Lawyers rise, Asean economic integration is here
It was the farthest in the minds of the graduating class of Ateneo Law School whom I addressed in 2010. The resolution in the Cebu Summit was to accelerate the Asean Vision 2020 of a single economic unit, characterized by free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor and freer flow of capital, to 2015. But I warned them then and urged them to prepare for the coming Asean practice of law.
Today, with 2015 just around the corner, the Asean Economic Community is the talk of the town. While some claim that the Philippines is not at all ready to be in such a region, others, en contra, maintain that we can be, provided we make the right moves with the little time left. But certainly, unlike a decade ago, those with strong opinions, when taken as a group, far outnumber those who are unconcerned or simply clueless.
I propose in this piece to share some insights which are the fruits of the more than half a century that I have devoted to the practice of law in the Philippines.
A salient, though silent, feature of the private practice of law in the Philippines is the belief of clients, rightly or wrongly, that their lawyer knows, or ought to know—”know” not in the pejorative sense of knowing the judge, but in the legitimate expectation that the lawyers to whom they pay good money, know not only what the law says but, in a degree that is a notch or two above the rest—how to deal with the law in a manner that will be advantageous to them.
This demand on lawyers is multiplied a hundredfold by clients who do or plan to do investments. When I spoke to the Ateneo graduates in 2010, direct foreign investments and loans in the Asean totaled roughly $346,187 million in 2008, up from only $23,541 million in 2000. Exports for the same period doubled; imports rose from $348,960 million to $831,229 million. Figures have gone north on a steep trajectory since then.
The impact of this development on the legal profession is inevitable. Lawyers are a necessary evil in assisting in the negotiation and crafting of agreements of interested parties. Hence, a great demand for legal services in the whole of Asean lurks around the corner. Country barriers to knowledge of inter-Asean law, though not necessarily license to practice in all, is a necessity.
This is not a pipe dream or a visionary prophecy; the germinal elements of such a development are already here. The same forces that unleashed the lowering of trade barriers will push cross-border practice in our region. We must therefore prepare for the inevitable by developing now a corps of skilled lawyers that can measure up to the demand.
But how do we do that? I submit that the Philippine legal profession can do so in a pragmatic way, taking our cue from the way the West dealt at one point with its need to invest in China. At that time I observed, when it was in fashion to have offices in China, that multinational law firms had been hiring in New York our former associates for posting in Hong Kong and Singapore, to involve them in servicing their clients’ interest in China and Asean. The move made good sense because we Filipinos have several unique advantages: We speak English, we have an Asean face, and, most significant, we have trained in the two great legal systems of the world—the Civil and Roman law which we inherited from Spain and the Anglo-American common law brought here by the Americans.
I therefore exhort young lawyers (any lawyer less than my age is by definition “young”) to spread their wings, after a few years of working locally by way of giving back, and seek engagement, if not employment, with multinational firms with branch offices in Asean and/or China. The learning and training they will receive and the contacts and contracts they will make will serve them well personally. Also, when intra-Asean practice becomes the new normal, they will constitute the skilled manpower (and womanpower) that the Philippines will require to be a meaningful participant in the opportunities that will take place in such an unprecedented event as Asean economic integration.
As intimated earlier, the groundswell has begun. Our firm’s former associates are presently employed by multinational law firms, and they are assigned to their respective offices in New York, Sydney, Paris, Belgium, the Hague, Hong Kong, Jakarta and Singapore. There is no reason to believe that the same phenomenon is not happening in the other big law firms in the country. And there certainly is no justification why the movement will not be inclusive of all in the Philippine legal profession.
It is my hope that while there is still time, Philippine lawyers will decide to ride in front of the Asean wave. Otherwise, we will be ceding the dominance of the forthcoming cross-border Asean practice of law to lawyers of other countries. That would be a pity because the potential for legal services in the Asean alone is tremendous. I would hate to see us lose it by default.
Ricardo J. Romulo is a senior partner of Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles.