Great lawyers form under most terrible conditions

For quite some time now, the Court has been looking not only at income levels to determine those whose access to courts we should facilitate; more broadly, we seek to reduce the operational barriers that have made justice elusive and difficult to obtain for most Filipinos. Considering the diversity of our roughly 108 million population, coupled with the fact that this population is dispersed throughout 7,641 islands at home, while over 30 foreign countries host 10% of this population abroad, the Court keenly understands a new paradigm is necessary. Part of this is the realization that we need more, not less, lawyers or law assistants, to help this burgeoning population. 

This population growth and dispersal will increase and diversify, necessitating a strategic rethinking of: (1) the kind of legal services that need to be provided; and (2) as a result of the classification that will be made on this account, whether it is time to evaluate the bar examinations’ ability to direct resources to the areas of need. 

In other words, can our bar examinations be reconfigured to be need-sensitive? Can this sensitivity to need account for geographical specificity in the differences between, for example, the primary concerns of agrarian areas versus urban areas, or the tyranny of distance disadvantaging remote locations? 

The implications of this question require a review of Rule 138 of the Revised Rules of Court, as to subject coverage, length, modality, schedule, and the kind of analytical and expressive abilities that are being measured by the examinations. This also requires an analysis of bar examiner behavior as to the carrying capacity of bar examiners to process examination booklets given their number and the kind and length of answers required by the examinations. As well as a cross-country comparison of how attorneys are accredited for practice could be useful for practice. 

We must also examine whether legal practice can be divided into sub-practices. if so, the manner of accreditation for these sub-practices; and whether limited license to practice in very simple procedural settings can be enabled. These questions will be the specific subject matter of our Sub-Committee on Admission to the Bar led by the Chairperson of the 2017 examinations, Associate Justice Lucas P. Bersamin and ably assisted by his sub-committee members, among whom are Associate Justices Mariano C. Del Castillo who is the Chairperson of the 2018 examinations, Estrella M. Perlas-Bernabe, and Mario Victor MVF Leonen. I believe everyone in this room will appreciate the possibility of dramatic changes that could take place in law practice accreditation as a result of answers to those questions.

Hopefully, you new lawyers will be able to participate in shaping this emerging landscape of law practice, and more generally, the administration of justice. 

Allow me then to speak to the numbers that have come out of the 2016 Bar Examinations and what they mean. You have heard the words “unprecedented,”  “exceptional,” “record-breaking” associated with your batch. 

Three weeks ago, the 3,747 of you made history as the biggest batch of passers since the Bar Examinations began in 1901. 

I note first that to the Filipino, numbers are just numbers unless they mean something in the context of their daily struggles to establish a hopeful future for their families, and in the midst of these struggles, to obtain justice when aggrieved. Second, no matter what the figures are, you are to be congratulated for having toiled to reach this point after years of hard work and stubborn persistence; after four November Sundays painfully scraping together answers to question after question. And now, here you are at last, having just taken your oath as lawyers, before the entire Court. 

Exceptional in diversity

Apart from your record-breaking number, your batch is exceptional in the diversity of your originating residence and law schools, especially with respect to those who did exceptionally well. The top ten bar passers represent no less than seven law schools and all three of the country’s island groups: an indication of the dispersal of quality legal education all throughout the country. May I ask all the new lawyers from Mindanao law schools together with their deans to rise to the applause of our audience? Now to the new lawyers from Visayas law schools and their law deans. To those from Luzon, except those from the National Capital Region. Now, to those from law schools in the National Capital Region. Now, without their deans, to the new lawyers from the NCR law schools who come from residences outside of the NCR.

Why do we need to recognize this diversity of originating residences and law schools? The answer is related to my points regarding the future of the legal profession.

If, as we recognize, non-Metro Manila law schools did well to break the dominance of the usual law schools topping the bar examinations, this could be the window of opportunity to talk about whether we can direct more and better legal services to areas outside Metro Manila and other major urban areas. We need to talk about encouraging more Mindanao, Visayas and non-Metro Manila lawyers to consider staying and rendering service where they are.

I understand that for a young lawyer wishing to provide his or her future family access to top-level education, Metro Manila is the business residence of choice. But, I ask you, batch 2016, to consider that it has been the historical neglect of the countryside that has created the understandably myopic view of the problem of justice in our country.

I speak of the fact that for long decades, our Congress crafted laws that seem to ignore our country’s geographical configuration as 7,000 islands with expansive maritime and fluvial spaces; recognizing terra firma, but not aqua corpus. And in light of this view of our physicality, our courts have lamentably been designed to operate in urban settings, where English, a language foreign to our heart and soul, is used.

I speak of the fact that certain problems in Mindanao are worlds apart from the problems that preoccupy the minds of Manilenyos. While the hardship of wars and other forms of violence assault Mindanaoans, these realities do not shape the minds of Metro Manila urbanites, especially in gated enclaves. I speak of the fact that in the Visayas, the threat of rising sea levels can wipe away entire coastal villages, and that their fishermen, despite having access to protein-rich sea resources, raise some of our most malnourished families; meanwhile, calamities and natural disasters visit Metro Manila in a more limited way. I speak of the fact that in parts of Luzon, agricultural contingencies arise with such dire urgency that a farmer must often borrow money to eat the rice he plants.

And I speak of what preoccupies many Filipino families’ dreams, the ideal of landing a job in a foreign country or a marriage to a foreign spouse as the ticket to Utopia. While dreaming, Filipinos are subjected to all kinds of criminal syndicates – human traffickers, slavers, sexual abusers, labor exploiters, and the lack of legal protection in other countries.

NEW LAWYERS. 2016 Bar passers take their oaths before justices of the Supreme Court led by Chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City on May 22, 2017. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

NEW LAWYERS. 2016 Bar passers take their oaths before justices of the Supreme Court led by Chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City on May 22, 2017.

Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

In other words, my dearest compañeros, compañeras, kababayans, we have forgotten how to dream beautiful dreams.

Will you walk with me, batch of 2016, along a path that looks at a fellow Filipino with the kindest of eyes, and with compassionate and generous hearts? Can we together dream of a future where we patiently listen to each other’s complaints and, as lawyers, contribute specific solutions to specific problems? You in Mindanao, tell the Court what Mindanaoan problems are in all their complexity and tell us how we should make courts and procedures work for Mindanao. You in the Visayas, enable us to devise solutions so that our courts allow people to live full lives despite the pendency of litigation without undue burden to your communities. You in the rest of Luzon, tell us how to make courts more accessible in the hinterlands of the Cordilleras, in the rising cities of Luzon, as well as in the congested cities of Metro Manila.

Dampen decibel of discord

Can we dream of a national conversation fueled by love of country and the ardent hope that we can dampen the decibel of discord, enough to understand each other, and define what justice truly means for our people?

The Court has big dreams for our people. For one, we are in the thick of discussions on how to make legal aid free for those who need it most, with this aid provided not only by seasoned lawyers, but by young lawyers as well. This discussion is being led by Justice Velasco. 

On September 1, 2017, the continuous trial guidelines, which we have been working on since 2014, take effect, and we expect great results from then on – Filipinos should be able to experience justice being delivered on-time. This effort is being spearheaded by Justice Diosdado M. Peralta. He is also leading our reform efforts on small claims, an initiative begun in 2008, which should help address most lower-income families and OFWs’ problems with uncollected debts and other similar aggravations. We have many more reform efforts that are changing the judicial landscape,especially the electronic court project and automated hearings, which are programs we began in 2013, but for now and for this audience, these I have mentioned should be enough.

My dear new lawyers, you who have come from all over our country and taken your oath – know that you will be part of the fulfilment of these dreams. You too will be vehicles of reform. From the moment you raised your hands and spoke those words, you have bound yourselves to your duty to society, the legal profession, the courts, and to your future clients. You have sworn to uphold the rule of law with integrity and professionalism, and to exercise the privilege of being members of the Bar not with self-interest foremost, but with unswerving dedication to the interests of the nation, the people, and the public good – wherever you may choose to serve.

The present shows us that lawyers need to understand how our history defines our identity. Our nation’s collective memory and collective forgetting shapes the workings of the legal system in the present -- and what it may be in the future. Parallel to this, the inequalities in material resources and infrastructure, access, and other regional specificities shape the system of justice throughout our nation: who achieves justice, where justice is served, and how swiftly this is done. 

In pushing for reform we must recognize the historic inequalities that have disadvantaged many regions and populations outside Metro Manila and other major urban centers – and in so doing seek to rectify them on all fronts: through rules and procedures, as the Court is doing; through continuous improvement of legal education throughout the country; and also through the presence of lawyers such as yourselves in regions that sorely need practitioners who are dedicated to addressing these inequities and contributing to their local communities.

For we must act on the core principle that the law is not merely a set of convenient formulae to solve specific problems; it is an overarching framework that embodies our people’s aspirations toward justice. And this framework exists not merely for the aspirations of one small set of people, but for all Filipinos, whether they be in remote rural areas or highly urbanized cities; whether they live in poverty or in wealth; whether they are in Luzon or Visayas or Mindanao. 

Yet we have seen that many components of our justice system do not take the incredible diversity of our nation’s people into account. My dear batch of 2016, I call upon you to commit yourselves with all passion and drive to join us in changing this.

For this is the heart of our reforms: that we must work to ever more closely hew to our people’s deep desire for justice throughout the entire Philippines, for all kinds of Filipinos.

Courage, integrity

In this work, I exhort you to:

Firstly, arm yourselves well: with idealism tempered by wisdom; passion strengthened by persistence; knowledge of the law honed by dedicated hard work. You are the lifeblood of the legal profession. Continue to revitalize the field.

Secondly, push forward with all courage and integrity as you take your place among your colleagues in our collective task to uphold, preserve, and defend the rule of law.

Thirdly, hold this foremost in your mind: the law exists to achieve justice for all, not merely a privileged few.

Lastly, when you choose where to serve, remember where the need is most urgent; remember your roots. Choose to serve where the need is greatest.

We find ourselves in times that call for lawyers who are more than skilled technicians trained merely to ply their trade. We need passionate and principled advocates; deep and thorough thinkers; philosophers, historians, and leaders in the law – not only in Metro Manila and other urban centers, but also – especially – in areas that have been historically under-served.

We need lawyers who will not back down from serving the rule of law even at great personal cost. We need lawyers who will not bend to pressures to set the law aside in favor of expediency.  We need lawyers committed to justice for all; dedicated to equal rights for the oppressed and disenfranchised; lawyers who serve where the need is greatest; lawyers who contribute to the conversation not only of their local community but to the national conversation as well, of how we might better serve our people.

I have called you to the service of all Filipinos. I will also add that the call to become a lawyer in these times is a call to sacrifice. In upholding the rule of law you will forego comfort for what will often seem thankless work. You may see peers who have forsaken their principles boasting about their wealth while you toil long hours for a far more humble wage. Your reward for continuing to act with courage and integrity may seem scant indeed. But it will endure past all wealth and luxury, when everything material falls away into dust. It will be for you a true and strong place on which to stand.

Great lawyers, like brilliant diamonds, form under the most crushing of pressures and the most terrible of conditions. For greatness lies not in what one chooses to do when one’s paths are easy. Greatness is proven when someone is confronted with dark and difficult ways – but forges ahead anyway to find the light. It is not on the mountaintops of grandeur and glory that greatness shines. It is in the valleys of the shadow of death, in the grit and dirt of the battle trenches. It is in your utmost extremity, when you find yourself overwhelmed by darkness, but continue to hold fast to your principles, that you blaze the brightest. –


These are excepts from Chief Justice Sereno’s keynote speech for the oath-taking ceremonies of the successful 2016 Bar examinees on Monday, May 22, at the Mall of Asia Arena, Pasay City.