For lawyer Nilo Divina, who heads one of the most sought–after law firms by clients and aspiring lawyers, miracles do happen.
“There is no other way to explain it, this phenomenon, this growth. It can be explained by probably one word, miracle. So miracles still happen,” Divina said in a one–on–one interview with the Philippines Graphic at his office in Makati.
Divina was referring to his full–service law firm DivinaLaw, which he put up 15 years ago with only five lawyers manning the fort, including him.
The 56–year–old lawyer said he was not driven by the prospect of having high profit and wide influence in building his own law firm.
In fact, he never thought that his law firm would be as big and highly regarded as it is right now.
At the outset, Divina vividly recalled that his initial idea then was just to establish a boutique law firm that would focus on commercial law cases considering his background as a corporate lawyer.
It’s a niche law firm, a boutique law firm with a particular expertise. But, I don’t know what happened. There were just so many chances and opportunities, and good luck that came along the way that from five we are now 72 lawyers and counting,” he proudly said.
Before becoming a corporate lawyer, Divina worked as a researcher for a trial court in Pasig while waiting for the result of his Bar examination. He got promoted as clerk of court after passing it in 1990.
Divina said having worked as a clerk of court helped him a lot in his legal practice as he got exposed to litigation early on.
“So, I guess God was really preparing me for this kind of life,” he said.
In 1992, he left the trial court and joined the Misa, Castro and Associates Law Office.
His stay with the law firm lasted only for two years as another opportunity came knocking at his door.
It was a post as corporate secretary of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) which he readily accepted.
He was subsequently promoted as general manager and chief legal adviser of PCSO before accepting a post with Equitable–PCI bank.
Divina spent 11 years of his career in legal practice and being involved in the firm’s operations with the bank.
“I rose from assistant vice president to executive vice president. I was the youngest executive vice president appointed by the bank. I left as general counsel, executive vice president and corporate secretary of the bank. It merged with Banco De Oro. After that, I put up my own law firm on April 19, 2006. So we’ll be celebrating our 15th anniversary this month,” he said.
When he finally decided to leave the bank and put up his own firm, one of his four clients was Equitable–Banco de Oro.
“When I left the bank to put up my own firm we handled about 80 cases of the bank. So, the big cases, important cases were referred to me by the then president of Equitable–PCI bank. Those were my initial cases. Anyway I won them all, those 80, I think. I don’t think we lost any of those cases, either we won or they got settled,” Divina recalled.
Becoming a lawyer has been Divina’s childhood dream. In fact, he never dreamed of any other career except a career in the legal profession.
“As soon as I acquired consciousness. I wanted to become a lawyer, there is no other career or profession for me,” he said.
So clear was his vision that it took him no extra effort to prepare, “but to simply decide to become a lawyer.”
“Regarding vision, of course we do not know what life would present along the way. So many opportunities presented themselves along the way but what is clear to me is that at the very outset, I knew what I wanted in life, I wanted to become a lawyer,” Divina pointed out.
He persevered and eventually earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Behavioral Science, cum laude, at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in 1985. He also took up law in UST and graduated magna cum laude and class valedictorian in 1989.
He passed the Bar Exams the following year.
Divina pursued a post–graduate diploma in International Tax Law from the Robert Kennedy College in Switzerland in 2004.
“My vision is that I want to be the best lawyer that I can be, not necessarily the best lawyer in the Philippines, but the best lawyer I can be, given the talent and the skills that God has given me,” Divina stressed.
But while his mind, heart and soul were ready to pursue his life–long dream, he admitted that his parents’ pockets were not prepared then.
“I had a deprived childhood. My parents were not rich, my mom, I remember, had to sell sundry stuff.. food, anything, just to be able to raise the money to pay for schooling,” the high–profile lawyer recalled.
He was lucky though to have a scholarship which helped cover his tuition during his years in law school while his parents shouldered his daily expenses and other school requirements.
Two of Divina’s sons are following his footsteps. One of them is currently taking up law while the other one will take up law next year.
Despite his busy schedule, the founder and managing partner of DivinaLaw sees to it that he still has quality time to spend with his family.
“So, I sleep late in the evening. [I am] the first to leave the office, as soon as I reach home I take dinner, spend time with my family, take a bath, then back to work,” he said.
When he formed his law firm in 2006, Divina admitted that he operated on a tight–budget which was only enough to pay for the salaries of his four lawyers for at least two years.
“That’s what I told them, at least for the next two years they are safe but after that I cannot assure anymore what will happen,” he said.
But, either due to hard work or God’s intervention, or both, DivinaLaw made it through with flying colors, and yes, with a huge profit.
Divina recounted that his earnings for the first three months in the law firm was equivalent to his two year salary while he was still working in the bank.
From having only five lawyers, including him, DivinaLaw now has 72 senior associates, partner–lawyers, counsels and consultants and is expected to grow further as more lawyers are expected to join the firm this month.
According to Divina, the firm had 80 cases and four clients in 2006. Today, it is handling more than 2,000 cases and hundreds of clients, putting it at the forefront of the country’s litigation practice.
The firm has metamorphosed into a full–fledged and full service law firm handling corporate litigation, labor and employment, criminal and civil litigations, tax cases, immigration issues, intellectual property cases, alternative dispute resolution, estate and trusts, insurances, public–private partnerships, mining and natural resources, energy, utility regulation and sports and entertainment.
DivinaLaw has also been consistently recognized by the Asian Law Business as the “Employer of Choice” by lawyers for the past three years as well as the Most Responsive Firm in 2019.
It is also the only law firm in the country who is a member of the Lawyers Associated Worldwide, a top–rated global association of 100 independent law firms from more than 50 countries.
It is the only Philippine member of LEGALINK, also a top–ranked global network of 68 independent law firms from a majority of the world’s commercial centers.
For three consecutive years, from 2018 to 2020, Divina was named as among the Top 100 lawyers in the country by the Asia Business Law Journal.
He was also named as one of the 500 leading lawyers by the InterContinental Finance and Law Magazine as well as the Managing Partner of the Year by the ACQ Global Awards in 2015 and 2017).
Aside from its one–whole floor or 2,000 square–meter office at Pacific Star Building in Makati City, DivinaLaw has offices in Singapore and key cities in the Philippines.
ONE BIG FAMILY
He noted that his law firm is like one big family whose members have to take care of one another.
“Whatever benefits, blessings I received from our Lord I share with them, there is no pay cut, no reduction of lawyers, in fact we are hiring. I give extra,” Divina said.
Even during this pandemic, his lawyers received extra benefits instead of cutting expenses.
Because the law firm has become so profitable, it was able to get the best graduates from top law schools such as the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, UST, San Beda, and other schools.
“We are no longer a UST law firm, although we pride ourselves as a predominantly or majority owned Thomasian law firm, but we are no longer a UST law firm, we have become universal. We recruit and attract the best talents,” Divina said.
He also noted that his law firm is now the highest paying, if not one of the highest paying law firms in the country.
“It’s like you are building an edifice. One brick after the other. Then you will be surprised, it’s already there, it’s already done,” Divina said in describing the stunning growth of the firm.
What about the possibility of the law firm breaking up?
For Divina, this is unlikely to happen because he is the only one who calls the shots. While his 10 senior partners, nine partners and other associates would give suggestions or their inputs on certain issues and cases, at the end of the day he is the only one who makes the decision.
“I have the final word, I have the final say. It may be good or bad depending on how you see it. But for me, it turned out to be very well, very good rather,” he shared.
However, he admitted being the only person who decides for the firm also has its downside.
“If things don’t work out the burden is all on me, unlike other law firms you have four or five partners, they contribute good or bad. If there is profit, it has to be spread out among the five. If there is also a difficult situation at least each of them bears the difficulty with the others,” he noted.
At present, Divina said he has no problem with the current structure of the law firm, considering that it has been profitable for the last 15 years.
To what will he attribute the success of the law firm in a short period of time?
“There is no other logical explanation, except our Lord guided us all throughout our journey,” Divina answered.
He said the mindset of putting the interest of their clients above all and the need to deliver positive results for their clients have helped attract more clients to seek legal assistance from the firm.
Being a firm known to deliver results for its clients, has created a perception that DivinaLaw is a “winning law firm.”
The firm also treats each of their cases as equally important, no matter how much profit it would bring in for the law firm.
Divina also attributed the law firm’s success to the strict adherence of his lawyers to their mantra of dynamic lawyering, which also sets it apart from other law firms.
He recalled that the Dynamic Lawyering tagline of the firm came about during their brainstorming about seven or eight years ago.
During their discussion, Divina said the so–called “blue ocean philosophy” which is also being espoused by one of the largest conglomerates in the country was brought up.
He explained that the blue ocean philosophy means creating your own niche, coming up with a distinct product or the best service in an already saturated market.
He cited, for example, the case of Cebu Pacific, which managed to find its own niche in the airline industry by offering cost–efficient fares and innovative services.
“It’s the same with us, with our firm. We have to be different from the rest, therefore we created our blue ocean that sets us apart from the other law firms,” Divina explained.
Thus, they came up with different names and phrases such as Divine Lawyer, Dashing Lawyer, even Debonair Lawyer, said in jest, until Dynamic Lawyering came out.
“Dynamic Lawyering encapsulates the philosophy of the firm; that we will do everything necessary within the bounds of ethics to deliver outstanding results to our clients, to make our clients happy, smiling and victorious. So we innovate, we think out of the box, we explore uncharted territory. We find ways, we open doors. Client satisfaction is our burning passion,” he explained.
“Our clients’ challenges are our own,” Divina added.
He explained that ordinarily a lawyer would detach himself from the problems and concerns and challenges of a client but not him and the law firm’s lawyers.
“As they say it’s only work, but for us, we make it personal,” he stressed.
HARD WORK & PRAYERS
He would sometimes find himself having sleepless nights just finding solutions to the problems of their clients.
As head of the law firm, Divina said he makes it a point to monitor each of the cases, letters, pleadings, opinions and correspondences that go out of his office, particularly those that might compromise the law firm.
“Anything that will bind the firm, anything that will be construed as a stand or opinion of the firm, it has to be cleared by me. So nothing gets out without my clearance,”
The establishment of a corporate development department in his law firm also contributed to its success.
Divina said the department is tasked to come up with ideas on how to penetrate market segments, offer services, and how to put the law firm in the public consciousness.
He also credited the UST and the Dominican priests, as well as his parents, for his deep and profound connection with God that has helped him steer the law firm to its current status.
He even noted that DivinaLaw is the only law firm in the whole world that has a chapel—a symbol of his belief that hard work and prayers should complement each other.
“We work as if everything depends on work but we also pray as if everything depends on prayer. We are the only law firm with a chapel in the whole world and I think it’s because the influence of UST is on me, the influence of my parents. They made me pray at the outset,” Divina said.
He added: “Even if I have problems and concerns, I just go to the chapel. You’ll see things from a different perspective and you don’t harbor any rancor, any hatred to anyone even though you get hit every now and then, because you know everything has to be construed in the right perspective. Prayer makes you acquire the right perspective.”
With his law firm now at the helm of the legal practice and the law book he authored “Revised Corporation Code of 2020” now a bestseller, Divina said he could have easily declared that all visions have been fulfilled.
He noted that the book is the only law book with four forewords—from the Chief Justice, the head of the Legal Education Board (LEB), the president of the Association of Law Schools and the UST Rector.
But, for Divina, a lot of things still need to be done such as finishing his very comprehensive reviewer for wannabe lawyers.
The dean said he would be launching the reviewer this April in time for the 15th anniversary of DivinaLaw.
“After that I told my lawyers what’s next for us. I told them we have to keep on dreaming, because the moment you stop dreaming you stagnate. I mean you need to have other goals, higher goals, and you identify yourself with those goals, with those dreams, when you stop dreaming, you stagnate. So you have to keep dreaming,” Divina said.
Divina said the law firm still has many projects that are now in the pipeline,
“So if you asked me, have I realized my vision for the firm? You haven’t seen the best of this firm because we have other dreams to pursue,” he said.