Quo vadis, Bar exams?

This Sunday, tomorrow, for the fourth time this month, thousands of young and old persons will flock to the University of Santo Tomas to take the final set of bar exams on Remedial Law and Legal Ethics. They started 8,245 strong but there have been those that did not come back on the second and third Sunday as there will be those who will not take the last exams tomorrow. In any case, whether or not you finish the exams, and whether or not you pass or fail the exam, I congratulate all those brave women and men who took up this most difficult of challenges. I dedicate my prayers tomorrow to you and especially from schools where I teach – Xavier University, Ateneo de Manila, University of the Philippines, Lyceum of the Philippines University, De La Salle University, Far Eastern University, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, and Ateneo de Zamboanga.

On the bar exams this year, the feedback is that the questions have been good and fair. I can say for sure that the political law questions are, like last year’s exam, excellent. I can only speculate that the political law examiner is a veteran professor of law, as brilliant a professor as last year’s examiner Professor Carlo Cruz.

Congratulations to Associate Justice Estela Bernabe for her excellent stewardship of this year’s exams. I am sure the incoming Chair who is responsible for next year’s bar exams Associate Justice Marvic Leoen will do just as well.

This is a good time to repeat my own views about the bar exams. As I have written before, the Supreme Court should decide with finality the nature of the exam, determine the level of expertise needed to pass them, and establish some standard of reasonableness that binds future Chairs and the examiners they choose. I suggest that the best way is to do this is to decide what is the right passing percentage for any given year.

For me, it is time to transform the bar exams and make it nothing more than a licensure exam. In similar exams for different fields (engineering, medicine, CPA), the average passing rates every year range from 40 to 60 percent. Most graduates of the good schools pass licensure exams and only the worst performers in those schools or those who graduate from diploma mills fail.

I hope Justice Leonen/s recommendation that the Supreme Court adopt a pass/fail system in assessing the performance of bar takers.

 In my view, the bar exams should be limited to the basic subjects all lawyers must know adequately – Political law, Civil Law (that may include some commercial law like the Corporation Code which can substitute such of the more archaic Civil Law subjects), Criminal Law, and Remedial Law (including Legal Ethics and Legal Forms). There is no justification for including Labor Law and Tax Law and most Commercial Law subjects that are highly specialized.

The bar exams should be regionalized, initially in one additional exam venue each in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao but eventually aiming for even more regional venues. The current system penalize the provincial takers not just in the high costs of coming over to Manila for a month during the exams but by depriving them of their usual family and other support systems. This year, the best provincial schools did well; if exams are regionalized, they will do even better.

I have argued before in this column that reforming the bar exams can hopefully lead to the radical transformation of legal education. Currently, law schools and law professors teach according to the demands of the bar exams as currently designed and conducted. Freed from its strictures, law schools can be more innovative in their curriculums, including offering more electives Among others, non-law subjects should be offered and students could be offered specialized tracks. We must also teach more international law subjects as well as expose future lawyers to new technologies and the challenges they bring. In addition, creative teaching methods could be employed to ensure better learning such as extensive use of moot courts and negotiation exercises.

A personal bias for me is for law schools to produce more human rights and alternative lawyers. Society needs such lawyers so much with human rights and social injustice so rampant. I hope such lawyers eventually ascend to positions of power and responsibility in our country. Happily, we do have the examples of Vice-President Leni Robredo, who worked for years in Saligan, and Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen, my fellow co-founder of Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, of alternative law colleagues who have done well and doing good for the country.

Legal education must refocus the mind – to look at the horizon of hope and posterity. The ordinary bar subjects will not do that. The usual so-called, bastardized way law professors use the Socratic method will result in the opposite outcome. To get there, the exams must be changed and with it the old ways of teaching the law.


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