First of Three Parts
WASHINGTON DC, United States – The 2009 Philippine Bar Exam results are out. 1,451 passed out of 5,903 who took the Bar Exam. Of the Top 10 Bar passers, 7 are from Ateneo, 2 from the University of the Philippines, and 2 from San Beda, with a 10th place tie. The 2 from San Beda placed # 1 and 2. Congratulations to those who topped the Bar and to those who passed. For those who didn’t, take time to reflect and compose yourself. Then try again.
A Bar topnotcher is the person who tops the Philippine Bar Exam in a given year. This ranking has been instituted since 1913. Colloquially, a Bar topnotcher can also mean being one of the Top 10 in the Bar passers’ list that the Office of the Bar Confidant releases.
Taking and passing the Philippine Bar Exam is one of the harder challenges of a law student. Of course, being admitted to law school is the initial challenge. Next would be having enough discipline, patience and resilience to make it to graduation after the regular 4 years of law school (5 years for evening students). Then, studying for the Bar for 5 months (April to August), taking it on the 4 Sundays of September, and nervously waiting for the results 6 months later.
The Bar examinee anxiously waits for the results in February or March, hoping her prayers to all of the Catholic saints were heard and all of her sacrifices were enough. If she made the long road trip to Our Lady of Manaoag church in Pangasinan, she wants to know that it was worth the traffic. She also confuses herself with lingering doubts, nightmares of failures, and dreams of conquest.
Hurdling the Infamous Bar Exam
Taking the Bar Exam is a difficult situation. If she makes it, her future is almost secured. Fail it and she has to repeat her months-long hard labor and the half-year of wait, not including the skyrocketing costs of the review and missed employment opportunities. Fail it and she stands to lose the confidence needed to pass. Unfortunately, some of the unlucky Bar examinees promise themselves never to take it again. There’s just really so much at stake.
Those who did not make it the first time should relax and chill for some time. They should think of the reasons why they didn’t make it – inadequate preparation, didn’t take it seriously, lack of focus, heavy workload, too much slacking, lack of prayers, no self-belief. After soul-searching and introspection, not blaming, it is time to pick up the books and reviewers once again.
Taking the Philippine Bar exam is nerve-wracking. Who’d really want to slave 8 to 12 hours a day memorizing, digesting and understanding jurisprudence, legal principles and doctrines. The typical Bar examinee cuts out a lot of socializing, family gatherings, movies and trips. Anxiety and restlessness abound, perhaps even a slight depression when the full pressure mounts.
She’s constantly misunderstood by non-lawyer friends who don’t get it why she can’t take the night off. “Take a break” is a difficult proposition to hear for the serious Bar examinee. She wants to but she can’t. Well, short breaks are needed once in a long while but not extended breaks. Too many of them and she risks offending her conscience. The Bar examinee doesn’t really “live” at this point; she just “exists”.
At the end of the long, dark tunnel called the Bar Review, there is a shimmering light. For one thing, she just might end up topping the Bar Exam – or at least that’s what her inner Gollum tells her. If she doesn’t, which most likely she wouldn’t anyway given the statistics, at least she’s going to pass it the first time. Passing the Bar Exam is like winning freedom after toiling like an Egyptian slave for a Pharaoh.
Take It, Pass it and Move on
Why can’t Philippine law students just take it, pass it, and move on with their lives and careers? Is there really a need for the highly sensationalized Top 10 Bar passers’ list? Why can’t it be a plain, no-frills licensure exam? There are advantages for being recognized as a Bar Topnotcher, but couldn’t passing it the first time one takes it be enough? Tradition, some will argue. Maybe. But it’s time to rethink this.
As someone who took and passed the murderous 2002 Philippine Bar Exam (the year with the second lowest passing percentage in recent history at 19.68%), the feeling of overjoy cannot easily be explained. After long years in night law school, working to support myself in the day, and uneasy months of doing nothing but hitting the books, hurdling the Bar Exam the first time I took it was sweet. It was also emotional, soothing and wonderful. I wasn’t a topnotcher but it didn’t matter.
In the Philippine legal context, the Top 10 Bar passers will be announced together with their Bar exam grades. These Top 10 passers usually graduated from the University of the Philippines, Ateneo Law School, and San Beda Law School. The Top 10 configuration of these three top law schools change over the years, with UP and Ateneo perennially dominating. Ateneo, however, has more topnotchers in recent years. It’s not surprising that 7 Ateneans were in the recent list.
After the Top 10 is announced, a celebratory atmosphere ensues. Like a religious feast or town fiesta, these topnotchers are paraded and serenaded. They will be the focus of interviews and news reports. They will attain unexpected fame for about a month. But after the euphoria dies down, topping the Bar Exam will always be in their arsenal of achievements. But is naming the Top 10 really that necessary? What happened to just taking it, passing it and moving on?
Glory and Adulation of a Bar Topnotcher
The glory and adulation of being a Bar topnotcher is overwhelming. Such distinction will be locked in all throughout that person’s life and career. It absolutely matters if she is #1 in the list. But it doesn’t really matter that much if she was ranked #2 to #10 for as long as she’s on that highly coveted list. Once her name is there, it’s etched forever.
It’s like a stamp of excellence or a mark of approval which can be bartered for better pay, promotion, transfer to a better firm, scholarship, or acceptance into Ivy League graduate schools. It can also lead to a professor of law position. Such title, as is the practice, precedes her name. It’s currency. It’s privilege. It also distinguishes the Bar topnotchers from the other mere mortals who simply took and passed that year’s Bar Exam.
The problem with having a Top 10 list is that it’s almost always from the same schools: UP, Ateneo and San Beda. According to some reports, the University of the Philippines has the most number of Bar topnotchers (meaning Top #1) with 46 since 1913, followed by Ateneo with 19, and San Beda with 7. The only issues for discussion every year are: from what law school is the #1, what is the configuration of the Top 10, and are there surprises this year.
Maybe it’s time we democratize the Bar Exam. Perhaps it’s time to treat the Bar Exam simply as a licensure requirement and not, for lack of a better term, a contest. Conceivably, it’s time to end the yearly guessing game of which between UP and Ateneo tops the exam. Or if it’s San Beda’s time in the spotlight. Or if it’s another law school’s graduate who will hug the headlines.
One thing is certain: despite all the glory and accolades showered on these Bar topnotchers, topping it doesn’t guarantee that they will perform well in their place of employment. Being in the Top 10 is one thing. But working efficiently, applying the law correctly, churning out well-drafted pleadings, being ethical, understanding office politics, and simply being kind comprise another. Having brilliant Bar scores is a fine start but it’s a long, murky road ahead. (To be continued.)
The author is a lawyer based in Washington, DC. He went to the University of Pennsylvania (LLM), Wharton (Cert.Bus.), Kyushu (LLM), and UPD (JD). Leave comment below or thru email@example.com or https://look-to-the-east.blogspot.com.