On topping the bar and 'making INC proud'

MANILA, Philippines – By now, one would’ve thought the high from being the topnotcher of the 2013 Bar Examinations would have already died down for Nielson Pangan.

When the results came out last March, media organizations scrambled to know more about Niel, the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law graduate, the guy who was neither valedictorian nor salutatorian but the 96th in his batch, the 27-year-old who was “shocked” with the exam results.

He soon became a familiar face in television interviews which talked about his faith as much as his feat. He is an Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) member – “born and raised” as such, he told Rappler – and serves as choir organist in his local congregation in Angono, Rizal.

When the exam results were released last March 18, he was at church, praying since 7 am. He heard the good news from a batchmate and fellow INC member, Gene Lopez.

Later that day, he met Dorothy Kristine Manalo – lawyer, and daughter of INC Executive Minister Eduardo V Manalo. She advised Niel to teach law in New Era University, the school run by INC.

The topnotcher listened.

Today, more than 4 months since he got the shock of his life, Niel still talks about his success story, making sure not to leave out the faith that, for him, made topping the bar exam possible in the first place.

"I've always wanted to do something that can make INC proud. If there's an opportunity to tell anyone – the world – that I'm part of this church, then I would. So I took it as an opportunity,” he shared.

Week after week, he speaks in front of different INC Christian family organizations, hoping to inspire brothers and sisters who dream to be just like him – a lawyer. 

While preparing for the bar examination, his priorities were clear to him. He buried his nose in law books but managed to fulfill his church duties anyway.

"[It was] really about time management. Kasi ang laging prinsipyo namin, you have your hierarchy of priorities. Number one in the list lagi is your church duties, and then you have your family duties, and then your schooling. If there's a conflict, parang sa akin if there's anything that you'll give up, yung nasa baba. Never sacrifice your church obligations,” he explained.

(It was really about time management. Our principle has always been for you to have your hierarchy of priorities. Number one on the list should always be your church duties, and then you have your family duties, and then your schooling. If there's a conflict, for me, if there's anything that you'll give up, it's the lower ones in the hierarchy. Never sacrifice your church obligations.)


A lot has changed for Niel. He will be teaching law starting August, and he switched from private practice to government service. He now works for the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) as an associate solicitor. Before the bar exam results, joining the OSG was only a dream for him.

"I've always wanted to join OSG only that, after grad kasi, when there were invitationsfor positions, sabi nila parang limited lang and they would hire lang yung nasa top 20 or 50, so I thought wala na ring chance,” he said.

(I've always wanted to join OSG only that, after graduation, when there were already invitations for positions, they said they would hire only those in the top 20 or 50, so I thought I did not stand a chance.)

Barely a month in his new work, Niel is grateful his schedule now allows him to attend midweek church activities. He can’t afford to miss his church duties, he said. This is the kind of discipline INC taught him.

For him, passing the bar exams entailed hard work, fervent prayers, and time management.

INC teachings, which Niel said are strictly based on the Bible, have always been his inspiration to work wholeheartedly and excel in all things. 

“Do everything for His glory. Every decision you make, every action you take, should be aligned with your doctrine as taught to us by the church administration. Excel, do good in everything you do, and take it as a chance to make the church and the Lord known by other people,” he said. 

Topping the bar exam came as a surprise for Niel, but it’s a happy kind of surprise, because now he can talk about his faith as much as he wants, and the world listens. – Rappler.com

See related stories:

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.