Legal education and the Bar examinations » Manila Bulletin News

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J. Art D. Brion

By J. Art D. Brion (RET.)

 

This year’s quest for admission to the practice of law ends this month when candidates take the Bar examinations. Counted from today, the finishing line lies just beyond the bend. Four more weeks of intense efforts will determine who will qualify for admission and who will not.

The quest, like a marathon, is a test of endurance, of will and determination, of persistence, of carefully chosen approaches and of individual talent. As in any running race, the effort to gain entry to the exclusive club of lawyers is backed by a coaching team – the law schools and their teachers – whose guidance the aspirant can hardly do without.

Of the nine years that lead to the Bar exam, the first four are pre-law or preparatory years. They are inertia and stamina-building years, as well as years when the students’ incipient mental talents are purposively incited and excited towards self-awareness, action, and growth.

Very wisely, law studies do not now require any specific preparatory program, only specific subjects deemed necessary to enable students to cope with the intellectual demands of legal studies. Law school is thus driven by the tailwinds of other disciplines – arts and the humanities, economics, mathematics and the sciences, and in some cases, even music and the fine arts.

The tempo set by college studies begins to change for the new law student as soon as he enters law school. The freshman year that greets him – with its faster academic pace, new focus and more rigid standards – is invariably a harrowing and disorienting experience.

Law and its various aspects become the center of the new law student’s life. Jurisprudence, which entails research, detailed reading, analysis, and comparison, becomes his daily companion. Recitations, traditionally based on Socratic questioning, expose him to new approaches of inquiry and analysis. Writing, logic, and reasoning techniques assume greater importance as tools in understanding and appreciating the law.

The rigors and discipline that law studies force upon students, cannot but result in casualties. On their own, many students drop out of law school. Some others, unfortunately, are simply forced out, although this development may also be considered fortunate when it serves as a redirection to a proper and more fitting calling in life.

After enrollment, the law school becomes the student’s community. Part of this community are the law teachers, the academics who have mastered the law they teach and who are well-known for their methods, wisdom and proven results in guiding students. Some teachers are not as well known as the older and more experienced ones, but they are also valued if they can instill discipline, awaken the spirit of learning, and masterfully impart the basics that the students would eventually need for Bar admission and the practice of law.

Conscientious and competent teachers, brought together with students ready for law school because of their college preparation, native talent, determination and will to succeed, serve as the ideal admixture towards success in the Bar examinations. Conversely, marginally prepared students who lack nurture and guidance from a fairly competent faculty, count as the dangerous combination that leads to Bar exam failures.

This coming Sunday (November 5, 2017), 7,237 Bar candidates from approximately 130 law schools and colleges in the country will take the annual Bar examinations. As in the past, some of these candidates possess talents honed to the ideal levels by rigorous pre-law and law school preparations. They are comfortable with the Constitution, the examinable statutes, general legal principles and jurisprudence, and can write and reason well, based on the guidance imparted by their teachers.

Bar history, however, shows that these well-prepared candidates belong to the minority; the greater majority are not as well prepared and are the candidates who usually fail to hurdle the Bar exams.

Except for last year’s results, the national passing average in the last 20 or so years was more or less around 25%. Even with the surprise Bar exam passing rate of 59% last year, the number of failing candidates was still sizeable – 41% or 2,600 out of the 6,344 who took the Bar exams. If 35% of this year’s 7,237 Bar candidates would pass, the passing rate would be an improvement on the previous national passing average but would still be in the same ball park as last year’s number – approximately 2,532.

As in the past, the shouts of joy of the successful Bar candidates will drown out the wailings of those who had failed. Invariably, the same questions asked year after year would arise: Did the law schools again fail in their mission to educate our law students? Where and how did these schools fail?

As a current member of the academe and with the hindsight that previous experiences as Bar chairman (in 2013) and examiner (in 2004) provide, I will not wholly lay the blame on the legal academe nor on any particular sector of our legal education system. I would rather just point out the situations that I feel should be acted upon to somehow address our more notorious problems.

My topmost concern relates to our educational system and the deficient high school and college preparation it has given our law students. Many of these students are ill-equipped for law school’s demands, particularly, in the use of English, reasoning and writing skills. If these students somehow survive law school, many of them would just end up joining the majority who usually become the Bar examination casualties.

The regulators, in my view, should strictly police the ranks of our law schools and close down the non-performing ones, particularly those without any single successful Bar candidate for at least three continuous years. (Some have had five continuous total shutout years.)

In fairness to the Legal Education Board, they were reportedly ready to act decisively last year, but the year’s unusual Bar results intervened. Thus, they deferred the implementation of their closure plans.

The deferment is saddening as last year’s Bar results did not erase the non-performing law schools’ egregious records. Their pristine record of failures largely remain unblemished, marred only by last year’s unusual Bar results. I find it hard to believe that these law schools are still in our midst; at most, they should be given a grace period and should be declared closed if they would fail to perform creditably in this year’s Bar examinations.

I also view with disfavor the objections to the LEB’s excellent plan to introduce the PhiLSAT, the Philippine Law School Admission Test. A nationally administered entrance exam – a regular feature in the US – is a measure whose time has come.

Among others, the PhiLSAT is a measure that will save students from themselves, i.e., from insisting that they can handle the demands of law school when they really cannot. This measure may also save law schools from dismal Bar performance records by forcing them to exclude those who, for lack of capacity and preparation, should rightfully be denied admission.

The PhiLSAT results speak for themselves. The LEB’s first exam last April 2017, according to reliable sources, was tailored to a 65% passing cut off. The LEB reportedly had to lower this cut off to 45% to raise the passing number to a level acceptable to the law schools.

Six thousand four hundred twenty one (6,421) took the recent September 2017 PhiLSAT exam. Of these, 3,709 or 57.76% passed, but the passing cut off was at 55%, not the 65% originally intended nor the 75% or so that governs the Bar examinations.

These results only confirm the quality of training and preparation of many who now seek law school admission. The situation is not at all addressed by the voluntary compliance that the LEB now effectively imposes, driven perhaps by the pending court case questioning the constitutional validity of the PhiLSAT and of the existence of the LEB itself. To the LEB’s (and the public’s) misfortune, the Supreme Court has not moved to resolve this case one way or the other, leaving the LEB in the limbo of uncertainty.

A large part of the blame for the current malaise rests with the law schools which persist in operating, year in and year out, despite their dismal results and without bothering to undertake the improvement measures that their situation calls for. They are largely responsible for the wasted years, the wasted efforts and the wasted resources that unsuccessful Bar candidates and their families have suffered through these years.

Let me end this article with an expression of hope that the Supreme Court will do its best this year to administer a Bar examination that will not only be fair but that will confirm the need for meaningful reforms in our legal education, the foundation for a competent and ethical legal profession and judiciary that the nation cries out for.

 

Readers can contact the author at jadb.legalforum.mb@gmail.com.

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