[OPINION] Beyond rhetoric: How to improve legal education in the Philippines

[OPINION] Beyond rhetoric: How to improve legal education in the Philippines
'What we really need are lawyers who will choose legal education, and not just if free time will allow it'

The discourse surrounding bar exam reform has been around for many decades, and has largely focused on one core tenet: that instead of teaching the law, the legal academe has been busy teaching to the test. The result? We graduate test takers, not lawyers. We develop good memory, but weak minds. We contribute more failures than passers. And with this observation, the steady conclusion has been that legal education needs overhaul. (READ: [OPINION | Deep Dive] What’s the big deal about the bar exams?)

I concur. Legal education is in sore need of reforms, and almost all of the academe has agreed on this for many years. But what we have in abundance – banner statements and manifestos, do not seem to lead to what we sorely need – data-driven, scholarly, and grounded proposals.

For example, whenever the problem of the bar-focused mentality is raised, there is an implication that the entire legal education system thinks this way, that the focus on topping the bar exams reflects the myopia of law schools. Yet this conclusion fails to exhibit the nuance needed in understanding the sector, and to my view, is rooted in how incredibly misunderstood legal academic institutions are, and how little investment lawyers have made in the education of their future colleagues.

There is a particularly troubling trend in questioning the performance of law schools outside of Metro Manila and putting them on trial for their “bar exam obsessiveness.” But viewing legal education as a monolith betrays an unacceptable lack of depth even as province-based law schools, far from just “teaching to the test,” have actually carved out profound roles in their localities. (READ: Before acing 2019 Bar, topnotcher recalls not getting into dream school)

There are law schools, for example, in Northern and Central Luzon which primarily serve government employees and police officers, offering them law education and training. There are also law schools across Northern and Eastern Mindanao, as well as BARMM, which have deep connections with local communities and advocacies, ranging from the rights of indigenous cultures, to mining and environmental issues, to peace building.

These institutions have gone on to contribute to and build the entire legal community of their regions.

There is also space for co-curricular development, for there are law schools which, despite tremendous financial and academic disadvantages, have found ways to participate in moot courts and competitions, often buoyed only by the tireless solitary efforts of their law deans, and the admirable grit that their students show. There are great examples of this in the Visayas and Southern Luzon.

I also know this personally, having graduated law from a province-based school. We knew that there was much discrimination foisted upon schools like ours, but we always told ourselves that our dreams were bigger than our bruised egos, and so we challenged our law education to go beyond the 4 corners of the classroom. (READ: Bar 2019: Provincial schools again emerge on top)

Unfortunately, I fear much of the discourse that lumps law schools into one homogenous clump which simply churns out lackluster graduates is motivated by the prejudice that prevents data-driven policy making from taking root, and allows simple rhetoric to takes its place.

Faced with broad calls for change, it is important to remember that the challenges in the training of future lawyers are complex, and we must approach the questions with an affinity to scientific rigor, candor, and introspection. For example, unlike other professional doctorate programs, 94% of law professors are only teaching part-time. That means less than 1 in 10 faculty members treat teaching as their main occupation. This has led, among many things, to a weak tradition of legal education scholarship. 

Second, findings from different studies from as early as Dean Irene Cortes (1970s) have found that, worse than lack of legal knowledge, many bar candidates exhibit poor language and logic skills.

Lastly, among the 4 education agencies (namely DepEd, CHED, TESDA, and LEB), legal education continues to receive the least amount of budgetary support.

There are, nonetheless, many initiatives already. To improve the compensation of law faculty, the graduate degree equivalency of the Juris Doctor as a professional doctorate has been corrected and made at par with that of medical doctors who teach in medical schools. 

And contrary to popular belief, schools are also not measured simply on the bar examinations alone. This performance at the licensure exams is contextualized with other standards such as the school’s investment in library resources and facilities, the depth of its faculty development programs, and the quality of academic leadership, through its curriculum and methods innovation, that shows that they are able to identify and improve on the flaws in its education strategies. 

Even the Supreme Court has responded by exploring improvements in the bar examinations and, in the last year, by revising the law student practice rule to encourage clinical legal education and broaden its impact on the justice system.

Meanwhile, on the Legal Education Board, the process of curriculum revision began in 2018, as part of a broader effort to update and modernize policies to be relevant to the demands of the future, and responsive to a student population that is predominantly female and working.

True, more needs to be done.

But among many things, what we really need are lawyers who will choose legal education, and not just if their free time will allow it. Nor is it enough that we just give our two cents’ worth because it is fashionable to do so. We need lawyers who will treat legal education as their main occupation. There are very few nominees, for example, who wish to serve at the helm of the LEB.

In truth, no other public sector has a more empowered membership, and until the legal profession forfeits rhetoric (usually served in bar exams season), and replaces it with investment, research, and most of their time, then the education of our future lawyers will never be a priority. – Rappler.com

Aaron Misa Dimaano is currently an academic and researcher working at the Legal Education Board. He graduated law from UST-Legazpi, and is pursuing a Masters in Women and Development from UP. He is the former Secretary General of the Association of Law Students of the Philippines. The views expressed here are his own.

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