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Raising the Bar

05:01 AM May 02, 2020

Like it or not, law schools are judged by one standard: The Bar Examinations. The Bar is the be-all and end-all of Philippine legal education, yet in reality is nothing more than a minimal measure of basic professional competence to render legal services.

Philippine law schools have bought into this game. Rather than teach law, they “teach to the test.” Relegating courses in Legal Theory, Jurisprudence, and Human Rights in exchange for “Bar Review” subjects, the law school trains its students to pass and “top” the yearly licensure exam. Who cares about fostering a social conscience? Why agonize over the eternal dilemma, “What is justice?” Why, how many points will that be in the bar exam?

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Bar fixation feigns fidelity to both text and tradition, yet its true loyalties lie with rote recitations of legal provisions. It shifts the law student’s focus away from seeing law as a lived discipline, toward the mechanical regurgitation of legal doctrine. Yet as the millennial lawyer knows too well, memorizing may have been valuable in the era of manual typewriters, but is gravely devalued in a time where the entire SCRA can fit in a single USB disk.

Teaching legal provisions in a vacuum produces lawyers who are out of touch with the changing world. Lawyers need to understand where their rules come from, what business or social need propelled such legislation, and not be surprised when the same rules are read differently in other jurisdictions. To be caught by surprise, after all, is bad for their clients, bad for the country, and bad for business.

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Way back in 1976, there was already near-unanimity among law deans that our system of legal education was in need of reform. These reforms need not entail radical and massive changes in one fell swoop. Rather, let us begin with workable reforms starting with the law school curriculum.

First: Rather than “teaching to the test,” law schools must look beyond what the law “is” and expose their students to normative ideals of what the law “ought to be.” They must build upon, rather than suppress, the interdisciplinary backgrounds of their students in economics, psychology, communications, and philosophy, as well as their moral and emotional sensibilities. This requires a wholistic, rather than a fragmentary, approach to law, so that students are left enough room to master legal doctrine and still be exposed to the wide range of practices and opinions in the courtroom and the classroom, in the Philippines and abroad.

Second: Law schools must encourage and enable their students to participate in co-curricular activities, whether through moot courts, internships, or “semester abroad” programs.

Third: Law schools can establish joint or exchange programs where foreign professors can teach, and foreign students can study, in Philippine law schools. By exposing students and faculty alike to outside views, law schools become intellectual ecosystems rather than echo chambers.

These incremental reforms will foster new criteria aside from the Bar exams by which to judge Philippine law schools. I spent an afternoon on the MAROONED Podcast with human rights lawyer Ross Tugade (now marooned in Turin, Italy!) revisiting fond memories of law school life—of publications with the Philippine Law Journal, of world championships with the UP Law Debate and Moot Court Union, of public service projects with the UP Alpha Sigma Fraternity. Certainly, there is so much more to law school life than law books. By highlighting their value, we liberate Philippine legal education from the blinders of Bar-fixated studies.

The problem lies not with the Bar itself, but with the lawyers who exalt it. The solution is not to devalue the Bar, but to celebrate it for what it truly is: as not a litmus test of ingenuity, but a minimal threshold. Topping it does not necessarily bespeak brilliance, much in the same way that failing it does not indicate incompetence.

Last Wednesday, 2,103 Bar-passers were welcomed into the profession. I extend my heartfelt congratulations for their feat. But greater challenges lie ahead. Rather than separate the legal norm from social mores, we must harness the roles of political processes and societal judgments in shaping the legal order. After all, Philippine law does not lack in doctrine; it is the Bar-fixated mind that lacks indoctrination. Indeed, to have less of the Bar is to raise it. But to do so, we must first realize that it is not enough for the law to be recapitulated, reinterpreted, or redefined—a legal culture must be reinvented.

Raphael A. Pangalangan earned his JD from UP, his Masters in Human Rights from Oxford, and is completing his LL.M. at Cambridge. He previously worked with the Ombudsman of the Philippines. He is a lawyer, and so much more.

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TAGS: and Human Rights, Bar Examinations., Jurisprudence, Legal Theory
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