Four Sundays and a funeral

What is the proper term for someone who is taking the bar exam?

I was going to suggest barista but I re-thought the thought after realizing that law graduates might take offense at being associated with slinging lattés, which are scrumptious, at a Starbucks. Not to denigrate those who work at Starbucks or cafés in general—they always seem happy and pleased to serve, unlike lawyers who can be arrogant and pompous and whose service always presage nothing good.  An almost-similar word, barrister, is likewise unacceptable because it is what all law graduates aspire to be only after passing the bar—a full-fledged lawyer.  The only other word that pops to mind is “underbar.”  I don’t think it’s a word because I tried using it in Scrabble once but nobody could find it in a dictionary and I couldn’t argue my way out of that one, but still, “underbar” remains popular among those waiting for the results of the bar exams as a self-referential term.

Isn’t it odd that the profession that thought up terms like certiorari, nunc pro tunc and fideicommissary should fail to coin a word for its aspiring acolytes? It cannot be “examiner” because a bar examiner refers to the person who formulates the questions to the bar exams and who checks and grades the papers, so is the proper word “examinee”? Somehow, I do not think that the problem is conveniently solved by a change of suffix, in the way that a person who steals is a “robber” and the person stolen from is the “robbee.”  Do not take my word for it, though, but for lack of brighter ideas, we shall have to leave the question hanging, for now.

As we speak, 8,701 law graduates are devoting their four Sundays this November to the bar exams. The bar exams are a bigger deal than they deserve to be; touted as the most difficult set of test questions, it is a quaint claim perpetuated by people who have obviously never taken a finals in tensor calculus, which even Albert Einstein could perform only during moments of extreme mental clarity. Rocket science the bar exams is not, so where does the hype come from?

As a veteran of the bar exams, I speak with some authority when I say that its reputation stems partly from the amount of studying involved. First is the study involved just to get through four years of law school, and second is the studying involved in preparation for the bar.  One cannot exist without the other, but if pressed to answer which is more important, I would say the first. That’s because those four years of study are not designed to fill one’s head of legal minutiae, which are legion and incapable of total mastery, but rather, are intended to supply one with stock knowledge, and more importantly, the logical skills to argue even a weak position.  Without that stock knowledge or logic, no amount of review will guarantee passing the bar.

There is also the length. The bar exams take place over four Sundays and there are eight practice areas covered: political law, civil law, commercial law and remedial law are tackled in the morning sessions, taking four hours each; labor law, taxation, criminal law and ethics are taken up in the afternoons and take three hours. Everybody talks about the studying and thinking involved, but nobody talks about the amount of writing that needs to be done. The physical act of writing one’s answers to the exam questions is itself exhausting and at the end of each Sunday, each examinee—there, I said it—is absolutely knackered.

And then there\s the myth. Much of the mystique associated with the bar exams is that only a few percent manage to pass. Back in the day, the passing rate used to hover at 10 percent or below; today, it’s more like 20-25 percent. That’s a huge difference, explainable probably because the Supreme Court feels that the Philippines could use more lawyers, a notion that Shakespeare will probably row with. I tend to side with the playwright.

That said, I will argue that the bar exams, difficult they already are, should be made even more difficult.  Is that even possible?  In a word, yes. One of our law professors was infamous for his right-minus-wrong tests. Nobody ever managed to pass those: most got negative scores, and if you scored a zero, you’d be over-the-moon with that. Another professor held open-book exams, which sounds peachy until you realize that the answers will not be found in the texts. A third, I heard, would pose only one to two questions; it’s up to you to identify the issues and proceed to answer all of them. The issues are interdependent and if you mess up one, you mess up the rest.

The how, however, is not as important as the why.  The bar exams are supposed to winnow out the unfit, but has it been successful at that? I will not name names, but there are those who have managed to pass the bar and take their oaths as lawyers but whose legal reasoning, not to mention their ethics, is execrable, and some of those lawyers hold positions of consequence in government.  I know who they are and many colleagues know who they are, but the question of interest is:  do they know who they are?

The scary thing is that they don’t. G



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