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Brick by brick

I want to be a lawyer because, for me, it’s a good way not only to earn a decent living but also to help mankind.

Our family is poor. My father never had a stable job. He used to drive a truck, a passenger jeepney, and a taxi. My mother inherited a small piece of land from her mother, but she sold it to pay for my sisters’ college tuition. She also tried her hand at selling native delicacies like  suman, puto, and  biko. She peddled detergents and cooked food as well. Now she runs a small laundry that she’s struggling to keep alive. Our family is so hard-up that I was able to finish college only through a scholarship that required me to work in the library in the morning and go to classes in the evening.

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If you live the kind of life that I live, you’d think of nothing else but a way out. Becoming a lawyer is my choice of a way out because, well, lawyers tend to be better off among the professionals, if not among the really rich ones. The idealist in me, however, finds becoming a lawyer merely for profit too small a dream. For sure, we need to aspire for the creature comforts because if the body is weak, we can’t possibly perform even the simplest tasks. Yet I believe that our responsibility is not only to make ourselves better off, but also, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, to “share the passion and action of [one’s] time.”

That makes the profession of law most fascinating. No other profession is so immersed in the passion and action of life than the practice of law. Sadly, however, lawyers get such a bad rap from the typical portrayals of them as bad guys in movies and books. Even so, there are a few lawyers who are truly admirable, whose concern is not so much making a nest egg from their profession as leaving a legacy.

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To my mind, Antonio Oposa Jr. of the Philippines is one such lawyer.

Having seen the wanton plunder of the environment in our country, Mr. Oposa decided to use the law—the only available weapon in his arsenal—to defend and protect its forests. He sued Fulgencio Factoran, the then environment secretary, to demand, among others, the cancellation of all the timber-license agreements that the Philippine government had been wantonly issuing. The case, which came to be known as Minors Oposa vs. Factoran, was the first of its kind in the world, for its plaintiffs are the generations yet unborn; it used the principle of “intergenerational equity,” a concept developed by Georgetown University law professor Edith Brown Weiss.

The regional trial court dismissed the case on the ground that the unborn generations didn’t have a legal standing. In 1993, however, the Supreme Court reversed the RTC’s decision.

The Supreme Court said in its judgment: “[E]very generation has a responsibility to the next to preserve that rhythm and harmony for the full enjoyment of a balanced and healthful ecology … the right to a sound environment constitutes, at the same time, the performance of their obligation to ensure the protection of that right for the generations to come.”

Protecting the environment is just one of the many battles that Mr. Oposa has been valiantly waging, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2009, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award—the Asian counterpart of the Nobel Prize—for “his path-breaking and passionate crusade to engage Filipinos in acts of enlightened citizenship that maximize the power of law to protect and nurture the environment for themselves, their children, and generations still to come.”

Mr. Oposa belies the popular belief that lawyers are crooks and liars. I believe that like Mr. Oposa, there are many more self-abnegating men and women of law out there. They may not drive fancy cars. They may not hold office in high-rise buildings. Instead, what they seek to leave behind is far more lasting: a better, safer, and just world.

I myself aspire to become a crusading lawyer like Mr. Oposa. I have no illusion, though, that the problems of the world will go away instantly just because I decided to become a lawyer, and a good lawyer at that. Indeed, what can one individual like me do? My answer is this: A great edifice is built not by a single person but by many people working side by side. Alone, I may not be able to build the edifice for a better world. But by being a good lawyer, I will help build that great edifice brick by brick until it becomes a reality.

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Arvin Antonio V. Ortiz, 23, is a full-time teacher of social studies at Stella Maris Academy of Davao. He is also a law freshman at the University of Mindanao College of Legal Education.

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TAGS: Antonio Oposa Jr., Arvin Antonio v. Ortiz, column, law, lawyer, Young Blood
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