How Arroyo can help produce better lawyers

MANILA, Philippines—The dismal results of the 2007 Bar Examinations highlight once again the urgent need to reform the entry requirements to the legal profession. To produce new and better lawyers, the collaboration not only of the Supreme Court and the law schools but also of the president of the Philippines is essential.

Role of the Supreme Court. Of the 5,626 who took the 2007 tests, only about 5 percent (less than 300) obtained the passing grade of 75 percent. However, the Supreme Court lowered the standard to 70 percent and the disqualification rate in three subjects (civil, labor and criminal law) from 50 to 45 percent. Thus, 1,289 candidates, or 22.91 percent, “passed.” This reduction in the passing grade is highly unusual. The last time it happened was a quarter century ago during the 1981 exam when the passing grade was lowered to 72.5 percent.

Prior to 1982, the passing mark jumped unpredictably from year to year: 69.45 percent in 1946; 69 in 1947; 70 in 1948, 1963, 1972 and 1974; 71 in 1961; 71.5 in 1953, 1964 and 1965; 72 in 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1967; 72.5 in 1954, 1962 and 1981; 73 in 1950, 1956, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1975, 1978 and 1980; 73.5 in 1955 and 1979; 74 in 1949, 1951, 1952, 1966, 1971, 1973 and 1977; and 74.5 in 1976.

Criticisms jammed the seemingly rhyme-less zigzag of the passing grade during those olden years. In 1954, when the passing percentage was already at its highest at 75.17 percent, the Court still lowered the passing grade to 72.5 percent. In 1982, a bar scandal (not directly related to the lowering of the passing grade) led to the resignation of all the justices! After the controversy ebbed, President Ferdinand Marcos re-appointed all but two of the magistrates.

In the more recent past, there was a move to lower the passing grade in 1999 to 74 percent. It was however defeated after it was discovered that the bar committee chairman—a sitting Supreme Court justice—failed to disclose that his nephew took the examination and might be benefited by the proposal. The Court censured the justice and reduced to 50 percent his compensation as chairman.

In any event, the Supreme Court, from 1982 to 2006, stopped decreasing the passing grade—until now in the 2007 test. The high tribunal attributed the current lowering to the “unusually strict correction process.” If that were so, then the solution should have been a re-correction of the answers, not a return to the long-abandoned and much-criticized method of chopping the passing grade.

Various study groups headed by retired Justices Ameurfina A. Melencio Herrera, Jose C. Vitug and Vicente V. Mendoza have proposed bar exam reforms. Several law associations, notably the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Philippine Bar Association, have submitted their own proposals. In turn, the Supreme Court has issued a comprehensive resolution on bar reforms (Bar Matter 1161, June 8, 2004). These were discussed in my April 22, 2007 column (accessible in my personal website, and click columns).

Role of the President. To save space, I will no longer repeat that discussion now. Suffice it to say that upgrading the bar exam alone is not enough. What is even more urgent is to energize the law curriculum and the law schools. Although the Supreme Court is authorized by the Constitution to conduct the bar examinations, it has no power to supervise law schools directly.

Republic Act 7662 gave that prerogative to the Legal Education Board (LEB). Though created in 1993, the LEB has not been operationalized; its chair and members have not been appointed and its budget allocated. President Macapagal-Arroyo can help elevate the quality of the law profession by activating the LEB, appointing its officials, and allocating funds for its immediate operation.

Role of the law schools. In the meantime, the law schools can do their part not only by upgrading their facilities and faculties but also by making their curricula more relevant to the 21st century. An example of this innovation is the pioneering Juris Doctor-Master of Business Administration (JD-MBA) dual degree program initiated by the Far Eastern University Institute of Law and the De La Salle Graduate School of Business.

Started in 2003, the program’s first batch will graduate this April 21, 2008 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in Makati with La Salle and FEU alumnus, Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco, as commencement speaker. The critical test is, of course, how the graduates will perform in the 2008 bar examinations.

What differentiates the five-year JD-MBA dual degree from the regular law course is the focus on business/corporate law in contrast to the traditional litigation orientation. As in the medical profession, gone are the days of the “generalist” lawyers. Nowadays, clients expect specialists to serve their specific needs. Hence, the JD-MBA program is a step in the right direction, closer to my vision of lawyers and judges who not only safeguard the liberty but also nurture the prosperity of our people.

Credit for innovations at FEU is due largely to the gung-ho leadership of its chairperson, Dr. Lourdes Reyes-Montinola, ably assisted by President Lydia B. Echauz and Law Dean Andres Bautista. During FEU’s recent 80th anniversary celebration at the Edsa Shangri-La ballroom, the big surprise was really the special award conferred on the unsuspecting Dr. Montinola for her relentless effort in enhancing the quality of FEU education and the beauty of its Morayta campus.

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