Lessons from Haydee Yorac

The appointment of a woman Chief Justice this week, second only in our history, reminded me of another lady lawyer, one who should also have been a great chief justice –  Haydee Yorac, my professor in the University of the Philippines College of Law.

Whenever I am asked now why I became a lawyer, there are four persons I blame: my grandfather and father who were also lawyers and who both showed me that you can be a good person as a lawyer and the late Senator Jose W. Diokno and Haydee Yorac, both of whom made it possible for me to imagine greatness as a lawyer, to be a “lawyer for the oppressed”.

Competence, integrity, and passion for justice matter. This is the lesson I learned from Professor Yorac, who was one of my first mentors at the UP College of Law.

I first encountered Professor Haydee even before I entered law school when in 1984, I observed her in court, defending Lino Brocka and others who had been arrested for demonstrating against Marcos. That case is now recorded in the 1990 Supreme Court decision of Brocka vs Enrile which laid down the doctrine that when bad faith is manifest in the prosecution of a case from its inception, all the subsequent proceedings are to be considered null and void. As I told my UP Law students last week, when we took up this case, this doctrine applies to the case of Senator Leila de Lima, and I suspect when she is finally exonerated and all charges thrown out, it is this doctrine will be invoked.

Going back to Yorac, I can never forget watching her (and Miriam Defensor Santiago, the judge in that case) in action, defending the oppressed those days in Quezon City. Both of them had command of the law, were very articulate, courageous (as this was during a dictatorship), and they seem to be enjoying what they were doing. Watching Judge Miriam and Professor Haydee, I told myself – “If this was what being a lawyer meant, this is for me!” I watched Free Legal Assistance Group lawyers Arno Sanida and William Chua help Haydee in that case and imagined myself to later on do the same thing.

As luck would have it, when I enrolled at the UP College of Law a year later, Professor Haydee became my teacher. She taught me Persons and Family relations and Obligations and Contracts. She had a reputation of a “terror teacher”, but was really a very soft hearted person; she would intimidate us and then would laugh at us when we allowed ourselves to be intimidated.

Professor Haydee of course later became better known as a human rights icon and an exemplary government official. After Marcos was overthrown, she worked in the Commission on Human Rights, the COMELEC, the National Unification Commission (in charge of the peace process), and in her last post was Chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG). As a government official,  Haydee Yorac was visionary and incorruptible.

But there was a lesser known aspect about her: she was fiercely and deeply loyal to her family and friends, including her students.

I can personally witness to her kindness. For example, I always acknowledge that it was the recommendation that she wrote for me (3 pages long, very detailed and specific, very generous with her praise even if I was undeserving) that convinced Yale Law School, also her alma mater, to accept me as a graduate law student.

Years later when I was an Undersecretary in DENR and under attack for my work on mining by both companies (who called me an environmental terrorist and a communist gorilla) and some NGOs (who thought I was too compromising because I really believed that mining when done right could be consistent with sustainable development), Professor Haydee called me up a couple of times to encourage me to stand firm and not to be intimidated.

Haydee’s love for her family was, for me, always a reminder of my own priorities. Yes, human rights, justice, peace in our land, good governance – all these was important. But you can only be credible if you have also been a good son, daughter, sibling, spouse, parent, and friend.

From my teacher, Haydee Yorac, I learned that becoming a great lawyer demands the right combination of integrity, competence and kindness.

If you have this combination, I tell my law students, you will be able to accomplish a lot. But you would need to make a choice as to what kind of lawyer you want to be.

Will you contribute to the chaos in the Philippines, exacerbate long standing problems of poverty and social injustice, incite violence and condone corruption, and become an instrument of oppression? Or, as a lawyer, do you want to be a healer, a problem solver, a source and facilitator of solutions not only for your clients but for your communities and for the country? In other words, do you want to be an abogado de campanilla or do you want to be a great lawyer?

Sometimes, you do  not choose greatness but the opportunity comes to you and you must accept it.

This is the case of the three young lawyers of the Desierto and Desierto Law Firm who will undergo, starting today, preliminary investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor in Makati. All compañeros and compañeras should support them in this challenging moment of their careers. They represent the rule of law. They represent our ability to defend our clients and the Bill of Rights. Haydee Yorac, if she were alive, would be in Makati today to accompany these lawyers.

At the beginning of all my law classes, I tell my students I have three objectives: (1) to help them pass the bar exam; (2) to train them to become good lawyers for their clients within the bounds of ethics; and most of all, (3) to become great lawyers. 

I tell my students they can be successful lawyers whatever career choice they want to make. But if they want to be a great lawyers, it is because they have made the world better – gentler and kinder. Great lawyers heal and help solves social problems; they know the law and interpret it with imagination and creativity so that practical solutions to challenges are always identified; they use legal and justice mechanisms such as courts to implement these solutions.

The great lawyer acts always with integrity and is passionate about building a prosperous and just society. In the Philippines context, the great lawyers care not only about success but cares deeply about our country and especially the poor.

Haydee Yorac was a great lawyer. May she be emulated by all of us called to be part of what was once a noble, now more ridiculed than admired, profession.


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