Is the bar exam still necessary?

MANILA, Philippines — A few days ago, on April 25, the 1,893 law graduates who passed the 2006 bar examinations took their oaths at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). They may now sport the title of “Atty.” before their names and, after paying their dues to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, practise law in any Philippine court.

Two joyous celebrations. Inasmuch as the tests were held in September last year during my watch as chief justice, I was invited by the exam chair, Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, to attend the ceremony. The mood at the PICC was jubilant and triumphant. The normally somber Supreme Court justices wore joyous faces. For the new lawyers and their loved ones, the induction was the culmination of at least nine years of study (four years of preparatory law, four of law proper and one more of bar review). Of course, the repeaters spent a few additional years.

The following day, April 26, I was the guest speaker during the 116th foundation day of the Philippine Bar Association (PBA). Born on April 8, 1891, the PBA has a pedigreed tradition dating back to the gloried days of Apolinario Mabini, Felipe Calderon, Cayetano Arellano and Jose Abad Santos. Its incumbent head, Victor P. Lazatin, is the successor to a virtual “who’s who” in the current legal firmament, including past presidents Ricardo Romulo, Edgardo Angara, Felipe Gozon, Eduardo de los Angeles, Teresita Sison, Evener Villasanta, Avelino J. Cruz, Carlos Platon, Rogelio Vinluan, Llewellyn Llanillo, Federico Agcaoili, Rolando de la Cuesta, Jay Castro and Rita Linda Jimeno.

In both the PICC induction and the PBA celebration, there was one overriding conversation: the annual bar examinations. Although I have already devoted two columns on this subject, I was requested to write on two more concerns aired during these occasions.

Bar exam performance of schools. First, many deans, who attended the induction, appreciated my analysis of the performance of the law schools (published in this space last Sunday), especially the computation of the passing percentages for the 15-year period, 1991 to 2005. However, to show how the new schools fared and how the old ones improved on their performance, they requested an analysis of shorter but more recent periods. I now comply.

For the 10-year period from 1996 to 2005, the national passing average according to the Office of the Bar Confidant was 25.85 percent. The following schools passed that figure: Ateneo de Manila (AdM), 89.19 percent; San Beda, 85.27; University of the Philippines (UP), 85.19; Ateneo de Davao (AdD), 65.57; University of Santo Tomas (UST), 56.70; University of San Carlos (USC), 54.45; Arellano University (ArU), 46.18; Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM), 41.26; Xavier University (XU), 37.45; Lyceum of the Philippines (LP), 32.40; St. Louis University (SLU), 31.38; and Far Eastern University (FEU), 26.25.

For the five-year span, 2001 to 2005, the national passing percentage was 26.42. The following exceeded that number: AdM, 90.03; San Beda, 83.92; UP, 80.69; AdD, 67.66; USC, 66.21; UST, 60.90; ArU, 49.81; University of Perpetual Help-Rizal (UPH-R), 43.64; PLM, 40.92; XU, 40.546; LP, 39.86; University of Batangas (UBat), 34.97; University of St. La Salle (USLS), 33.03; FEU, 31.71; USA, 30.58; SU, 29.23; SLU, 29.15; Andres Bonifacio College (ABC), 28.20 and Urios College, 27.54.

The foregoing data show that for the three separate periods of 15 (which I reported on last Sunday), 10 and 5 years, AdM, San Beda and UP made a consistent 1-2-3 posting. New schools like PLM, UPH-R, UBat, USLS, ABC and Urios made significant inroads in beating the national passing percentages for those milestones.

Importance of the bar exams. Second, many law practitioners and even some parents complain that too much fuss is given the bar examinations. Instead of relying on the bar tests as the measure of a lawyer’s worth, is it not better to concentrate on the upgrading of law schools?

True, there are many lawyers who did not place in the exams; nonetheless, they performed quite well in the real world. In fact, there are some initial bar flunkers who singularly succeeded later on. The favorite example is the late Sen. Claro M. Recto who failed on his first attempt but became a brilliant practitioner and exemplary public servant.

True also, bar exams are not required in some countries. In Spain, for instance, a law graduate is deemed ready to practise the profession without need to pass any new hurdle. In the United States, the bar tests are given quite perfunctorily on a state-to-state basis. No big deal. But it is equally true that in some other places like Japan and Korea, the exams are so tough that less than 5 percent pass.

In our country, the bar test has always been a national event. And passing the bar has always been a source of pride not only for the candidates but also for their extended families and friends. Until a better substitute is perfected and implemented, I think this tradition will remain.

True, there is also an urgent necessity to upgrade the law curriculum and the law schools. But as pointed out in my last column, the proposed reforms will remain in limbo unless and until the Legal Education Board is operationalized. In the meantime, the bar exams will continue to be reinvented to make them more responsive to the needs of the 21st century and, in my humble view, to help in breeding ethical and competent lawyers.

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