Much ado about the bar exam | Inquirer Opinion

Much ado about the bar exam

Anyone with even a casual interest in Philippine current affairs is familiar with the fanfare and ritual that attend the annual announcement of the country’s newest lawyers. On the day the Bar exam results are released, the Supreme Court grounds on Padre Faura are filled with a throng of people—examinees, accompanied by family, friends, and delegations from law schools—all waiting in anxious anticipation.

As soon as the names of passers roll on the giant screen in front of the Supreme Court, people erupt into wild jubilation, the kind seen very rarely, reserved for improbable occasions such as winning the lottery. On display are various forms of cathartic release: ecstatic screaming, joyous leaping, unrestrained sobbing.

The amount of attention paid by the general public to this occasion would certainly appear inordinate to the foreign observer. But it becomes perfectly justified when one considers the extraordinary amount of time, effort, and money that an applicant to the Philippine Bar has to expend to finish law school and study for the exam. Law school in the Philippines is a herculean undertaking—a test of stamina, grit, and mettle more than anything else. Whether legal education should be geared primarily toward the cultivation of these three qualities is a separate question, one that we would do well to ask ourselves.

It has been noted before that nowhere else in the world is the Bar exam as big of a deal as it is in the Philippines. In many other countries, it is accorded a significance that is commensurate with its nature as a licensure examination. The Bar exam is a test of fundamentals, not a prescient indicator of whether one will become a great lawyer. It is designed to determine whether applicants know enough about the law to be able to serve their clients competently. That is all there is to it. To ascribe to it any greater importance is to fail to keep a sense of proportion.


It is hard to resist the temptation to attempt a cultural diagnosis of this peculiarly Filipino phenomenon. It seems to me that this almost fanatical obsession over a licensure examination tells us something about what we value as a nation. Others have already noted the extent to which professional titles are treated in our country as a measure of social worth, a signal of one’s position in the pecking order. Far from being egalitarian, we are a nation with a predilection for hierarchy, status, appearances, distinguishment, and achievement for the sake of achievement. Ours is a culture eager to take any opportunity for adulation and celebration, whether warranted or unwarranted.

Those more idealistic might surmise that the degree of public attention that the Bar exam attracts hearkens back to a bygone age, real or imagined, when the lawyer was considered the embodiment of a certain set of values: prudence, honor, candor, restraint, and an abounding sense of noblesse oblige. It may be that this idealized image of the virtuous lawyer has been so ingrained in our cultural imagination that the public takes the annual Bar exam as an opportunity to instill in lawyers some sense of duty.

To assume that lawyers will do great things just by their being a lawyer is to take the will for the deed. Common sense dictates that what lawyers actually do after passing the Bar is infinitely more important than how many attempts they made or how well they fared in the exam. That public attention is often skewed in favor of the latter is symptomatic of a failure to properly appreciate the relative significance of things. Is the possession of an instrument really more important than whether that instrument is used toward its proper ends?

The late Miriam Defensor Santiago, who by her own admission almost flunked the Bar, led a life of public service, later becoming a fiery and articulate stand-in for our collective indignation. Leni Robredo failed on her first attempt but spent almost the entirety of her legal career lawyering for the poor and the marginalized; when she ran for president in the last elections, she became a symbol of radical hope for many of her supporters. Countless human rights lawyers do the dirty work of maintaining some semblance of justice in our traumatized nation, but almost none of them get any attention from the press and the public.


In less than two weeks, this year’s successful Bar examinees will take the lawyer’s oath and sign the roll of attorneys. After that, all the attention and the fanfare will end. A lawyer once told me what might be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard said about becoming a lawyer in the Philippines—a sentiment that, it appeared to me, captured so much of what was problematic about the legal profession in the country: “Passing the Bar exam,” she said, “is the summit of a Filipino lawyer’s legal career. It’s all downhill from there.”



Joseph Sebastian Javier is a recent graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Law. He interned at the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2018.

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