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On becoming a lawyer

On Jan. 23 and 25, law graduates will go through what is arguably the most difficult and prestigious of Philippine government tests, the bar examinations.

Due to the volatility of the global public health situation which resulted in the cancellation of last year’s bar examinations, this year’s cohort of examinees will plunge into tests with a reduced coverage: from eight to four examinations, and a shortened duration from the usual four to two days.

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The difficulty of the bar exams which has one of the lowest passing rates among the country’s examinations has certainly added to the mystique surrounding a student’s morphing into a full-fledged lawyer. Yet the bottom line is really just an opportunity for specialized service.

Osborne’s Concise Law Dictionary defines a lawyer as someone “appointed by another to act in his place or represent him,” with the law giving the lawyer the imprimatur to represent clients in and out of courts, hence the appellation “attorney-at-law.” But what does it really take to become a lawyer of note beyond passing the dreaded bar exams? I can cite three areas that separate chaff from the grain, indicators of what a good attorney is: a legal mind put to good use, loyalty to clients and the law (ethics), and a life of purpose and meaning.

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A lawyer’s mind, sharpened by years of study, crowns an attorney’s work. A scalpel-like brain can expose half-lies and alibis with the use of a tool called cross-examination thereby helping judges arrive at the truth. Yet, like any tool, the same mind can also be used for less than honorable purposes in the hands of unethical and unscrupulous practitioners, willing to auction off their services to the highest bidder.

It is the job of the Integrated Bar to identify and for the Supreme Court to discipline erring members. An honest-to-goodness lawyer’s mind is like a clear spotlight that searches for the truth and exposes falsehoods, leaving the latter with nary a place to hide.

According to Anwar Mumtaz, a lawyer’s mind “absorbs and assimilates the intricate details of a case” enough to muster sound advocacy and present persuasive arguments in court—for those who choose to litigate. The same capacity to see through different facets of a case similarly equips lawyers with the necessary skill to steer through negotiation “towards a well-reasoned outcome” and a settlement that stops disputes—for those choosing careers in conflict resolution, serving as mediators or judges.

Legal ethics are principles of conduct that lawyers are expected to observe in their professional, and personal, life. In the Philippines, the Code of Professional Responsibility sets out the duties lawyers have toward the courts, their clients, their colleagues, and the wider society. Canon 1 of the Code mandates a lawyer to “uphold the Constitution” and “obey the laws of the land,” while Canon 7 requires lawyers to offer legal services with “integrity.”

Integrity, which fuses both personal and professional honesty, is a fundamental requirement for any person seeking to become a member of the Bar. According to the Canadian professional rules, if “a client has any doubt about his or her lawyer’s trustworthiness, the essential element in the true lawyer-client relationship will be missing.” This means without integrity, the “lawyer’s usefulness to the client and reputation within the profession will be destroyed, regardless of how competent the lawyer may be.” Integrity, therefore, ensures the lawyer is “fit to be entrusted” by the public with their affairs and confidences, absent which public trust and confidence in the legal and judicial profession are undermined.

A life of purpose and meaning is really just to know one’s own calling as applied productively within the profession. Certain lawyers are better suited at litigation, others at conflict resolution, although the boundaries of the two are really porous as one can be a litigator and mediator.

Other minds are more suited to teaching and furthering legal scholarship. Some go for small-town practice, others answer corporate legal needs, while some choose to ponder on the international ramifications of law. Questions like how can the rule of law promote peace, eradicate wars, mitigate the doomsday scenarios brought about by climate change or by this or any future pandemics.

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Whatever it is, as our former dean at the University of San Carlos School of Law used to say, the irreducible minimum in what we do is to be happy. Dean Expedito Bugarin said one cannot be a lawyer all the time. Indeed, life is too short for a single passion as indeed one can be a lawyer, musician, volunteer, poet, basketball player, or gardener all at the same time.

Best wishes to all Bar 2022 examinees for a life and profession well-lived.

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Dr. Gil Tabucanon is an adjunct senior lecturer of law at The University of Notre Dame in Sydney. He was the defense counsel in the case of People v. Genosa at the Regional Trial Court level.

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TAGS: Bar Examinations., COVID-19, health crisis, lawyer, pandemic
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