On Being a Lawyer

Today is the first Sunday of the 2008 Bar Examinations.

To commemorate the occasion, the PDI published a short essay written by the late Anski del Castillo. I only really met her once, at our oath-taking. She stood with me and my law school friends as we promised the country to be good and ethical lawyers.

According to the PDI, this was written shortly before that April morning. To do her memory justice, and as we say in the practice, the said letter is herein quoted in full:

In the Philippines, when you say you’re a lawyer, people react in different ways. You sometimes get respect or deference, sometimes a bit of awe. There are of course those who treat you with suspicion, or even hate. Remember that most popular of all Shakespearean quotations? “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (Henry VI, Part II, Act IV)

What’s all this about being a lawyer anyway? Is it your entrance ticket into a world of men bound by rules, codes, laws and statutes? In real life, lawyering means entering into a vast network that includes business, entertainment, technology, environment and practically everything else. A lawyer must become that proverbial jack-of-all-trades. Except that a lawyer must be master of one thing. He or she must know “the rules” or “the laws” that bind us together as a community, as an organization, as a society.

This is a tough job requiring years of preparation. First, as a law student, when you have to read and comprehend a multitude of laws and cases, and then learn to analyze them. After law school, you must learn to apply them to the real world, the world outside the law school library or the study room.

But first, you must pass the bar exams. The bar is the one test that you must pass to join that elite club of people who append “Attorney” to their names. It’s a test the republic requires to ensure that an officer of the court we call a “lawyer” or an “attorney” has indeed studied the law for years, and is capable of representing the interest of other people usually referred to as “clients.”

Like a doctor, the lawyer holds lives and livelihoods in his hands. You can’t let just anyone do this kind of work without first testing him to find out whether or not he really knows what he is doing. Thus we have the bar, a series of gruelling tests taken during the four successive Sundays of September.

A typical bar Sunday consists of a seven-hour exam with a two-hour break for lunch. You are made to answer mostly essay-type questions, although multiple-choice questions may also be included.

One can’t take the bar exams without first going to law school. To get into law school, you are required to have finished an undergraduate course; that serves as your pre-law course. Your undergraduate degree must have the prescribed units in the social sciences, languages, philosophy, among others. After that comes the four years in an accredited law school and then the law diploma. Then you prepare for the bar. Other eligibility requirements include certifications attesting to one’s good moral character, and of not having been charged or convicted of any crime.

Armed with the required degrees and other eligibility requirements, you then embark on an unimaginable number of hours of reading and preparing for the test itself. If you are not dedicated to the law, or at least interested in it, passing the bar might be one big and difficult hurdle.

That is what happened to me.

I studied law with apathy and nonchalance. In college, I acted as if it was not the beginning of my real “life” as an adult, or that it would spell out my future. Of course, I know better now. But in those days, I was just into partying, partying and partying.

The only reason I took up law was because both my parents are lawyers. I took up political science in college as a pre-law course. I had a little interest in the law in the beginning, but the path towards fulfilling my dreams through being a lawyer was not that clear.

In hindsight, I see now that to go into law, you need a well-defined, clear-cut desire to do so. You have to want it passionately. Eight years ago there weren’t any interactive websites where you could research and choose your course from any educational institution. As I found out, there isn’t enough time and there aren’t enough resources in the world to help you find that perfect course. After college, I took up law in one of the finest law schools there is, the one where my parents also obtained their law degrees.

A born crammer

My basic attitude didn’t really change that much in law school. I went out a lot hanging out with friends on so-called “gimmicks.” But of course, I had to work hard, working myself to death during exam time. I also had to put it together, just enough to make it through the “roasts” (or those “massacre recitations”).

Six months after graduation from law school, I took the bar. Being a born crammer, I knew I had to be serious and work like crazy all those six short months. I asked around and the usual schedule was to read at least a hundred pages a day, which meant at least 10 hours of reading and listening to review lectures daily. I did all these. But when the bar results came out, my name wasn’t on the list. I was devastated.

People who cram and get by start to think that they’re smarter than others. I was one of them. When I flunked the bar, I realized I wasn’t that smart after all. Working yourself to death for six months wasn’t enough. I realized I had wasted eight years of my life.

Flunking the bar made me see there was no clear path in my life. My future suddenly became hazy and uncertain, and I seemed to be starting anew on an uncharted path. I was faced with many questions. Should I continue studying and take the bar again? Should I just begin a new career path, a whole new life where I would be in charge?

I began to understand the meaning of failure and hardship and of destiny—the role that we play in our own lives, and the role of God in it. God gives us all the freedom we want, but there’s also responsibility that goes with it. If I did take the road to a new career path, the older, wiser and tougher me knew I would be faced with many new challenges and possibilities of failure as well. It was a scary thought, but it was also exciting.

Allergic to failure

However, I couldn’t resist a second try at the bar exams. First of all, I had all this knowledge and facts swimming around my head from taking the bar exams. Second, I knew that being allowed to take the bar again would be some sort of blessing. I already had the advantage over the others since I would have studied twice, thrice, or even four or five times more than those taking it for the first time. Third and most important of all, I was “allergic” to failure, and I knew I had to redeem myself by passing the second time around. So I took the bar again.

I studied like mad. The rest of the world faded away, and there was just me and my books. Officially, I wasn’t a crammer anymore since I had studied most of this stuff the first time around. I tried to understand every book I read, and prayed hard that I would remember what I read and retain the knowledge. Somewhere along the way, I began to find myself.

One day, while studying till the wee hours, I suddenly began to cry. It was self-pity, and the realization that I had never worked so hard in my life. Studying for the bar is the toughest thing a person can do because it takes over your whole life and requires all your concentration, energy and patience. It makes you forego any other desire for months, deny yourself all pastimes, hobbies and recreation, and abandon all meaningful relationships. It requires everything that you can give, and more.

When I say I found myself, I mean, it was as if I went around the world, across the universe, and found myself back home, with myself, with my soul. It was the inner me that could not be defined by my likes or dislikes, or those cliché definitions of the meaning of love that one reads in a Hallmark greeting card on Valentine’s Day.

That almost superhuman effort of preparing for the bar exams the second time around made me find my real self. Despite the fact that I had almost no interaction with other people for months, this me that I found was the me-alone, and also the me-in-relation to others. A philosopher might call it “the existential me.”

‘Forever me’

When I found myself, there was no turning back, no return slips for defective goods, “no return, no exchange.” I found the “forever-me.”

D-Day finally came. Since I didn’t pass the first time, my confidence was shaky and my composure precarious. I held it together and answered fast and concisely, wrote legibly, and prayed as I never prayed before in my entire life.

After the exams, it was difficult to determine whether I would pass or not. The bar is like that—so uncertain, so many possible answers, and only one correct answer. I waited six long months. Finally, the results were released. My classmates and friends found out before I did. It was moving how they seemed more ecstatic and more excited than I was.

If passing the first time was like one long congratulatory party, passing the second time was a big sigh of relief. It is reclaiming your confidence, trusting yourself again, and finally, believing that all this was meant to happen. It meant getting on the right path again and finding your friends and loved ones still there. It’s finding your life again waiting for you.

One with my soul

Everyone says later that it was meant to happen. But do I really believe that? It does mean that I had a lot more to learn before getting to where I am now. All the reasons and the confluence of events, all the whys and wherefores of Robert Frost’s road less taken would eventually reveal itself in time.

For me, I guess I had to grow up and be one with my soul, that almost mythical rite of passage we thought we only read in great literature, but which is part of everyone’s life. What happened to that teenage girl who only thought about what to wear and which party to go to? She realized that life is all about choices. Now it’s which book to read, how to schedule her activities for the day. Still the same giggly immature girl, but now in her 20s, and somehow different in many respects.

At last I discovered that being a lawyer was my true path although at the start I was just going with the flow, like floating downstream in a river. When I finally began to find myself, I related to and understood the world more. In a way I became more caring but also more responsible and emphatic in my views.

I also saw the need to help people, and I realized how being a lawyer is one of the better paths to do that. I could volunteer in nongovernment organizations to help the poor, preserve the environment, defend the rights of orphans and abused women.

Government work was also another option open to me as a lawyer. I could promote policies that could help people and preserve those places on earth where the environment has been abused. And even in private practice, I could handle cases and contribute directly to improve the lives of my clients.

I do realize now that being a lawyer creates a peculiar and unique sense of power and responsibility that I wouldn’t have had in any other career. It’s really the beginning of a new life. Now that I’m a lawyer, I want to express a very special thanks to my parents. I also want to thank everyone who helped me along the way. I could never imagine I would be so excited to embark on this new voyage, to begin my life again and change the world.

RIP.

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