What PH can learn from the New York bar
On Nov. 14, 2022, Supreme Court Associate Justice Benjamin Alfredo S. Caguioa described the Philippine bar examination as the “most grueling licensure exam of the country.”
No truer words have been spoken.
I sat the Philippine bar in November 2016. I had earned my Juris Doctor from the University of the Philippines in June earlier that year, and committed myself to the Malcolm Hall library for the five months in between. Days on end, I studied, lived, and breathed legal doctrine.
That period of bar review was nothing short of hellish. A terrible experience that I would neither dare to repeat nor wish upon even my worst enemies, as one might say. So I am sure you could imagine my relief when, six months later on May 3, 2017, I saw my name on the bar passers list.
Looking back, I’m still not sure what was worse: the half year preparing for the bar, or the half year of torment awaiting its results. But perhaps the ultimate irony here is that, despite that grueling experience of legal baptism by fire, five years later, I decided to sit the bar again. This time, in New York.
The process of admission to the New York bar is vastly different from that in the Philippines. First of all, while in the Philippines candidates would need to sit a single bar exam across four several testing dates, for New York bar candidates would need to take three separate examinations: (i) the New York Law Exam (NYLE); (ii) the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE); and the pièce de résistance, (iii) the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE)—which, to much confusion, is similarly referred to as the “New York Bar Exam.”
The NYLE is a two-hour, 50 item, multiple choice test on the state law of New York administered at least four times per year, while the MPRE is a two-hour, 60-question multiple choice ethics examination that is administered three times per year. Perhaps the most unique feature of the NYLE is how it is conducted wholly open book! Both exams were straightforward, and I had dedicated no more than 48 hours in total to review for the NYLE and MPRE. A reckless and unthinkable feat in terms of the Philippine bar experience.
The UBE, on the other hand, was much more challenging. Unlike the NYLE, which looks insularly to state law, the UBE has US federal law for its subject matter. The UBE (likewise conducted via the Examplify software, which is now used for the Philippine bar), is a 12-hour-long exam administered twice a year, in the months of February and July. It consists of three parts: the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), and the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE).
The MBE is your traditional multiple choice exam, while both the MPT and MEE are essay-type exams. The MPT and MEE, however, test different facets of competency. The MPT is a simulation exercise where the candidate is asked to draft a memo or a pleading addressing a hypothetical case. It is made to test the candidate’s ability to apply the law to “real life scenarios” involving a boss or a client.
On the other hand, the MEE tests a student’s ability to answer questions on specific legal subjects. In a way, the MEE is similar to the traditional essay-type questions of the Philippine bar exam. What makes things different, however, is how the thematic focus of these questions are not predetermined. While in the Philippines we have a day dedicated to a designated subject, in the MEE all six questions can be drawn from contract law, constitutional law, criminal law and procedure, evidence, torts, and real property law.
This aspect of the MEE is particularly challenging as it not only tests the candidates’ legal knowledge but their capacity to issue spot. Take, for example, an essay question that involves defamatory remarks made by John Doe against a public officer. The candidate would need to assess whether the fact pattern provided is provoking a response involving constitutional law (e.g., involving the right to free expression) or tort law (e.g., involving slander and liability).
I still recall: It was 2021, my fiancée and I learned that the New York bar was going to be held online and could be taken from anywhere in the globe in light of the pandemic. We were both then working full-time, so the chance to sit the New York bar without having to take leave from work was equally challenging as it was alluring. There was, however, one catch: Though we could sit the exam from Manila, we had to take it in the New York time zone, that is, from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. in Philippine Standard Time.
Unfazed, we enrolled in an eight-week Barbri review course and managed to squeeze in about four hours a day of review after work. The review course was completely online and consisted of prerecorded videos and simulated tests. Unlike Philippine bar review, which often involves multiple rounds of different readings, Barbri had all the readings collated in a single set of material. This did away with having to buy multiple commentaries on a single subject, which makes the Philippine bar review not only more tedious, but more expensive than it needs to be.
No doubt, the Philippine bar has changed for the better over the past half decade. But there is still much room for improvement. One vital aspect of the New York bar that the Philippines should consider following is conducting the exam more than once a year. This would not only give candidates options in terms of when to take the exam, but also give those who fail the exam an opportunity to re-sit the bar without having to invest a whole year, during which laws may change and review materials would be revised.
Lastly, the Philippine bar exam should also seek to test more than mere tidbits of knowledge. In the legal practice, lawyering involves much more than simply knowing the doctrine. In fact, the greater challenge is less about what the law is and more about when, where, how, and why certain laws apply over others.
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