Make or break: My freshman law story

“The business of a law school is not sufficiently described when you merely say that it is to teach law, or to make lawyers. It is to teach law in the grand manner, and to make great lawyers.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes

I celebrated on the day that I found out I passed the University of the Philippines ' Law Aptitude Exam (LAE), but I had no idea what exactly I was celebrating for.

Amidst warnings from those (un)fortunate enough to have already spent time in the hallowed halls of Malcolm, I welcomed the adventure I thought law school was going to be. I just passed the LAE and nothing could rain on my parade— certainly, admittance to the prestigious UP College of Law was a feat in itself.

Then, law school started. You soon learn that there is nothing more grueling, more disastrous than the life of law students struggling with their first year.

Not for me

I honestly did not think I’d ever end up in law school, nor did the scores of people who were so unabashedly surprised when they found out I was in UP Law. At a young age, I had decided against it, much to the chagrin of my lawyer father who loves what he does for a living and lives for what he loves doing. And sure, Suits made it seem fun and sexy but law always appeared to me to be such a strict, rigid, and unforgiving profession.

But then, I one day found myself - a lost twenty-something graduating from college with no plans nor any inkling of what to do with my (now very imminent) future. When my father suggested that I take law entrance exams, I did so not because I wanted to be a lawyer.

Today, that is not true. A year in, hundreds of cases read, and a dream job replaced with dreams of a legal profession later, I daresay: I may want to be a lawyer after all.

Hardest part

To say that my first year in law school was the hardest thing I ever had to accomplish would be an understatement. There is little to no time for anything else in your life and most days you find yourself racking your brain, wondering why in the world you’re staying. Nothing really prepares you for “the grand manner”. The reality of it isn’t so grand.

The normal load for freshman student is 18 units. A unit would mean an hour per week; so a 4-unit subject would translate to 4 hours of meeting per week, or 2-hour sessions twice a week. Eighteen (18) hours of class a week do not seem like much considering that, on a "light” school day, you would have only a 2-hour class and, on a “heavy” day, you need only to attend 3 classes. But to prepare for a 2-hour class means having to read at least 20 assigned Supreme Court decisions, on top of legal provisions, annotations and commentaries. One case can take from 7 to 30 pages. But you have 18 hours of classes per week, did I not say that already? Easily, you’re just reading from the time you leave your last class to the time you head to your next class the next day. All this doesn’t even factor in classes where the good professor allows only hand-written notes to be brought to class, or weekly quizzes on how well you have memorized law provisions, word for word, which, to hurdle, you’ve got to garner at least 90%.

Law school subscribes to the Socratic method. There are no lectures or explanations, just recitations. Nothing is ever explained to you in class, you are expected to come in, know your material, and recite on it flawlessly. Basically, the professor picks a random class card and the person called is made to stand and answer a barrage of questions to test how well he understood the material— if you forget the answer, you get a 5 (which means you failed for that day); if you’re asked about the one topic you didn’t read about, that’s also a 5; if you cut class because you didn’t finish reading and you get called, that’s also a 5. Yes, it rains 5’s in Malcolm and when it rains, it pours. This is especially troubling given that to stay in the college, you need to maintain a certain grade, one that gradually goes higher the longer you stay in the college.

This year, out of the 200 something freshmen students enrolled in UP Law, there were more or less 60 students who have been dropped from the rolls. This is not counting those who failed the first semester and those who left the college voluntarily.

No sleep

The first month in, I slept an average of 4 hours a night (6 if I’m lucky!) and I was downing around 4 cups of coffee per day. It was on the third day of non-stop reading that I started really doubting what I was doing and the tears finally came. It was 6 a.m. on a beautiful morning after a long night of studying and I was having my first cup of coffee. I was dreading the day to come— there was a pile of readings due that afternoon that I haven’t gotten to. I was tired, stressed, and sleepy. I felt burned out, run into the ground and it wasn’t even a week in. I wanted to cry. Just when that first tear was about to drop, I thought to myself: crying would take 5 minutes, I could finish reading a page in the same amount of time— and so, I finished that page instead.

Later on that night, there were no pages, just tears.

Sacrifice to learn

That’s pretty much what law school is: a sacrifice to learn. Through all of this, you also learn to persevere. That glimmer of hope, that small slither of light which shines through the darkest of days, can get you through so much. Og Mandino did say, “Failure will never overtake me if my determination to succeed is strong enough,” and this has never been so true.

In between piles and piles of readings, arduous recitations, countless sleepless nights, and so many tears, I learned about the law— and I learned so much about myself. Man’s resilience and propensity to carry on has always amazed, but never would I have ever imagined that I would find this in myself.

I have since believed that never in my life have I gone through anything more gut-wrenching and fulfilling but at the same time I am thankful for it every single day.

I celebrated on the day that I found out I passed the Law Aptitude Exam, like how I celebrated when I found out I made it through this school year, like how I now celebrate after every exam, quiz, and recitation— and now I know why I do this. Law school makes or breaks you.. and if you’re still swimming, there is much to be thankful for. - Rappler.com

Isa Rodriguez is a law student and social media producer at Rappler.

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