The Legal Education Summit

I welcome the Legal Education Summit that is being convened this week. The purpose of the Summit, according to Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin, is to “update the basic law curriculum for purposes of admission to the bar and adopt the best practices to develop students to become practice-ready lawyers.”

To prepare for the summit, regional consultative meetings  have been held focusing on four (4) main topics, namely, the Bar Examinations, law curriculum, law instruction and law administration. Group discussions have tackled the current state of the Philippine Legal Education system; to identify the different problems and the challenges faced by legal education in the Philippines; gather ideas from different stakeholders that would address the problems and challenges; and propose recommendations that would remedy and improve our legal education.

One topic has been the proposed amendments to Republic Act 7662 or the Legal Education Reform Act of 1993 which created the Legal Education Board (LEB). The independent government agency responsible for the regulation of the legal education. Among others, rhe LEB conducts the Philippine Law School Admission Test (PhiLSAT), a nationwide law school aptitude exam.

Lately, there are calls to amend R.A. Act No. 7662 amidst issues questioning the constitutionality of LEB. According to oppositors, the Legal Education Reform Act is unconstitutional, arguing that Congress cannot create the said administrative office or board because authority over the practice of law is reserved for the SC under the Constitution.

Overall, I think the LEB is a good idea. Certainly its first Chair Justice Hilarion Aquino did an excellent job in establishing the Board and setting forth its initial policies and procedures. Its second and current Chair Emerson Aquende (disclosure: he was my student in the University of the Philippines College of Law and I personaly like him) has also not been remiss in fulfilling LEB’s mandate. However, because the current LEB is perceived as too aggressive and encroaching on the autonomy of law schools, there has been a strong push back from several stakeholders. In fact, a petition has been filed in the Supreme Court questioning many of LEB’s decisions, including the constitutionality of the law itself. Among others, the Supreme Court have issued a Temporary Restraining Order against the PhilSAT which some observes consider as an indication of the Supreme Court thinking on the LEB.

Whatever the decision of the Supreme Court is on the current petition, I hope we find a way preserve the best outcome so far of having a LEB – that law schools have began benchmark with each other, that we are aligning our curriculums, that professors are being required to upgrade their teaching, among others.

My hope is that the LEB will be able to eventually find the right balance –  setting standards and benchmarks for law schools but still allowing law schools to innovate and not feel too constrained by excessive regulation. The LEB should also stay away from issues that are not within its competence, like determining that JD degrees are equivalent to PHDs, an equivalence which made our profession a laughing stock among our non-law academic colleagues.

The Legal Education Summit of course will be incomplete without a discussion on proposed reforms on the Bar Examinations. A paper prepared by former Supreme Court Justice Vicente Mendoza explains why there are suggestions to reform the bar examinations. These proposed reforms are grouped into three broad categories, namely: first, “structural and policy reforms,” including the appointment of tenured Board of Bar Examiners in lieu of ad hoc Committees on Bar Examinations appointed every year; the creation of readership panels for each subject area and the creation of an advisory committee to assist the Supreme Court and the Board; and the provision for character and fitness investigation. Second, “changes in the design and construction of test question” among them is the introduction of multiple choice questions. Under the third category denominated as “methodological reforms,” there is the proposed adoption of the calibration method to correct variations in the level of test difficulty and grader leniency.

As for me, as an educator for 38 years (I started teaching philosophy in 1981 as a Jesuit Volunteer in Cagayan de Oro) and a law professor for 29 years (I currently teach in ten law schools, two of which are graduate schools of law and two are provincial law schools), I have clear ideas on what needs to be changed in legal education.

First, the bar examinations must be fundamentally changed as the way these exams are framed and administered determines how law schools teach the law – both in terms of content and process. The bar exams should be designed as nothing more than a licensure exam, where knowledge of the basics of law would be sufficient. Thus there must be fewer subjects that should be included in the exam – in my view, these political law, civil law, remedial law (which should include ethics), and criminal law. Labor, commercial, and tax law are all specializations. Perhaps special exams can later be administered for those subjects (commercial law can be broken up top as many specializations as possible) and can be required for those who will practice in those fields of law.

I agree with Chief Justice Bersamin and Justice Marvic Leonen that we should get rid of top ten or top twenty lists. Although I did well myself and ranked third in the 1989 exams, I am convinced that the bar exams should be a pass or fail thing. There is no value to society or to the legal profession of having a top ten or twenty list. It engenders a false competition among law students and schools and makes the bar exams even more important than it really is.

Second, assuming the bar exams are reformed, Philippine legal education should totally change its pedagogy. The so-called Socratic method we used in law school recitation is an insult to Socrates. It has long been abandoned by the best law schools in the world. It terrorizes students without contributing to their learning.

Based on my decades experience of teaching here and abroad, what works best for legal education are problem based teaching methodologies and clinical approaches to teaching. These include: moot court  exercises based on real or imagined cases; , negotiation simulations that allow for multiple perspectives and exploration of legal and policy options;  drafting of laws, judicial decisions, and legal documents that encourages students to learn while doing; writing of thesis or research papers that allow students to discover a love and skill for scholarship; and, field trips to museums, historical sites, physical places where relevant (like in environmental law).

As for clinical legal education, the recent amendment by the Supreme Court of the student law practice rule is a good thing. All law schools should establish legal aid clinics and some subjects (human rights such as child and prisoner rights, environmental law, etc) could be offered and taught as specialized law clinics. In this respect, I am aware that newly elected Representative Fidel Nograles, of the province of Rizal, will be filing a bill that would mandate and support such legal clinics. That would be good for both legal education and access to justice.

That is good because In the end, this is what is should be about: does legal education in the Philippines promote justice for all and not for the rich. The Legal Education Summit must come up with the right solutions to problems of the country’s legal education system by exploring  and  discovering the  knowledge,  skills  and  values  that  a  Filipino  law  student  should  develop  in  the  law schools to be able to not only competently practice law in the 21st century but to be the sentinels of justice that our oaths as lawyers promise us to be.

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