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MANILA, Philippines – 2023 Bar topnotcher Ephraim Bie of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) said in an interview with Rappler he wants to be able to do something to reverse impunity that persists in the country.
“First of all, it’s sad. The culture of impunity that’s actually emanating in the Philippines. As a young lawyer, it motivates me to actually be more involved sa mga issues na gano’n na (in issues like these) since lawyers are being gunned down for just representing a client.”
“Siguro (I guess), it motivates me as a lawyer to take some steps, like personally or as a catalyst for change, to reverse this sad state of impunity,” he added.
This year’s batch of new lawyers faces a pile of problems that beset the legal profession. Topping these concerns are the continued killings and harassment of lawyers. Based on Rappler’s running list, collated with sources from the government and independent groups, there have been 118 lawyers killed since 1972 to present.
The most recent victim was lawyer Maria Saniata Liwliwa Alzate, who was shot dead inside her car in Abra on September 14. The lawyer, who assisted the marginalized in her home province, was slain three days before the first day of the 2023 Bar exams on September 17.
Bie said the public should also call on the government to address this problem that has been affecting the legal profession for the last five decades.
“We can take steps. It’s up to each of us individually. But the government must also ensure that its lawyers are well protected since lawyers are actually persons with employment vested with the public interest,” Bie explained.
Bie emerged as the 2023 Bar topnotcher after earning a grade of 89.2625%. He led the pack of 19 other topnotchers and the rest of the 3,812 examinees who passed what is regarded as the hardest licensure exam in the country. The Ateneo de Manila University School of Law ranked first among all law schools with over 100 examinees – both for first takers and total number of Bar candidates.
Essence of being a lawyer
The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for 2023 revealed that the Philippines’ rule of law rating remains one of the worst in the region. The Philippines ranked 100th out of 142 countries and 13th out of 15 countries in the East and the Pacific region.
Given this, Bie believes that the lawyer’s duty is to fill in the gaps – reaching those who are really in need or the marginalized. The 2023 Bar topnotcher underscored the need for more lawyers who can help administer justice.
“Since there are so few lawyers as opposed to so many marginalized people, we need lawyers to aid these marginalized people to represent their cause, represent their claims, and just generally have someone to fight for them,” Bie said.
Some students entering law school have the vision to serve the people. For Bie, this vision should serve as a reminder of why they entered the profession in the first place. “We prayed for God to make us pass the Bar…as a new lawyer, I’ll keep in mind to do my best to do my part in serving the people.”
The Bar topnotcher also has a perspective on how lawyers should behave in public. Due to various reasons such as profane and homophobic remarks, some lawyers were sanctioned by the Supreme Court. Some were even punished to the extent of disbarment like Larry Gadon, whose video clip was found by the High Court “indisputably scandalous that it discredits the legal profession.”
Bie said lawyers should be careful about how they behave, given the ethics of the legal profession. For him these violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability (CPRA), the new lawyers’ code of conduct, are intentional “more often than not.”
Public perception of lawyers and its effects on the administration of justice is important to Bie.
“As a new lawyer, I’ll start with myself. I should be more circumspect about how I act, how I represent clients and future clients, and how I embody being a member of the legal profession in the eyes of the public,” Bie told Rappler.
“Since lawyers, according to the Supreme Court, are being viewed by the public as those who aid in the administration of justice, and if lawyers are viewed as corrupt or unethical, then that erodes the public’s view of justice in the country,” he added.
Topping the Bar
Unlike other examinees who waited at the SC courtyard, Bie decided to await the results at home with his mother. It was she who probably prayed the hardest for him, day and night, even marshalling a prayer group to help storm the heavens. When his name was called, his mother was ecstatic and cried for joy.
“Of course, we called my siblings. One of my sisters works abroad, so we called her, then my other sister who works here in UST. Then everyone started crying,” Bie said in Filipino.
When people found out about his historic feat, Bie said many of his friends and colleagues messaged to congratulate him. But the first one who called him was UST Law Dean Nilo Divina, who told him how proud he was, adding that his success was an inspiration for their law community, Bie added.
Bie is the fifth Thomasian to land the Bar’s top spot after former chief justice Roberto Concepcion (1924), former president Diosdado Macapagal (1936), former senator Jose Diokno (1944), and Arlene Maneja (2002). Mae Diane Azores from UST Legazpi, UST Manila’s sister school, also topped the 2019 Bar.
Bie disclosed that in the exam, he struggled the most with labor law, even though it was his favorite subject in law school. This was because the questions were based on actual cases. Bie said that because he found the exams difficult, he had doubts about passing. Nevertheless, he still hoped his name would be among the list of passers, if not topnotchers.
“I think it’s human nature to expect that you’re there, especially if you work so hard for it. But when the countdown was at the top 3, I somewhat lost my hope. But when my name was called as the top 1, it was pure joy for me and my family,” Bie told Rappler.
In law school, he kept in mind the advice to read everything, every assignment given to him, no matter what. He did not take any shortcuts or make excuses – he read every required reading, he said. This became his practice from law school up to the Bar review.
“So it was just pure work. There are no substitutes for hard work. If you work hard, you will eventually see the fruits of your labor,” he added.
Secrets to success
Bie is the first lawyer in his family and he said it helped he did not feel any pressure from his family. The topnotcher said he just does what he loves and achievements follow. Bie said he was really thankful for the immense support from his family and friends, and that without them, his dreams wouldn’t be possible.
“In law school, you cannot act like you’re an island…You really need the support of other people. Because there are days really that you will have someone to get your back. So, just really grateful for them,” the topnotcher said. “Thanking God that he gave me a strong support system, and of course, UST was super supportive, too.”
Growing up, Bie said he always loved writing and reading, that’s why he took up journalism in college. He earned his journalism degree from UST in 2015. He was a writer for the Issues section of their college paper, The Flame, and was also awarded a creative writing fellowship by UST’s publication, The Varsitarian.
At a very young age, Bie was certain he really wanted to be a lawyer. He was told journalism would be a perfect undergraduate degree, which did not make sense for him at first, Bie said.
“But when you analyze it further, the communication skills, the writing skills you gain from journalism super translate well into law,” the topnotcher said. “It’s one thing to know the law. It’s another thing to explain it to another person, or to write it for a judge to read it. So, that’s it, my communication skills helped me in law school.”
In an interview with Rappler, UST’s Divina praised Bie’s good writing skills. Divina told Rappler that Bie wrote the case digest of some of the decisions written by the 2023 Bar chair, Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando, as part of their review.
“So far as being a member of a student publication, I think it’s the same benefit as being a journalism graduate. You get taught in journalism how to write…how to express your thoughts in a manner that would be communicated effectively to your audience,” Bie said. “Writing law exam answers is exactly like that. You need to communicate the legal basis to the examiner.”
After graduating in 2015, Bie did not immediately enter law school. Since he did not come from a privileged family, his financial situation did not allow him to enroll immediately. He worked as a news writer to save money for his emergency funds before taking law.
“As far as working before going to law school, I think it was really helpful for me because it helped me develop my work ethic and time management. It helped me manage my expectations when it came to the classes.”
In law school, he was a working student, Bie said, so he had to really manage his time properly. The scholarship granted to him by UST Law also helped him survive law school, Bie said.
Later on, he graduated from the UST faculty of civil law as class valedictorian. He currently works in the litigation department of top firm Divina Law, which is also owned by Dean Divina.
The standout values that helped Bie succeed were his diligence and eagerness. “I think people like me were raised just like that. Just hard work. Our parents taught us to just work hard for what you want. It’s not impossible as long as you want it enough,” Bie said. – with research from Olive Pallasigue/Rappler.com
Some quotes were translated to English for brevity.
Olive Pallasigue is a Rappler volunteer. She is a fourth year broadcasting student at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines-Open University. Learn more about Rappler’s internship program here.