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Experiencing The Bar A Second Time

By J. Estela Perlas-Bernabe


The Bar Examinations is the only national test given by the Supreme Court to all law graduates in the country to determine their passage to the practice of law. It is given annually on four consecutive Sundays of September, on the following subjects with the corresponding weights: First Sunday – Political and International Law (15%) and Labor and Social Legislation (10%); Second Sunday – Civil Law (15%) and Taxation (10%); Third Sunday – Mercantile Law (15%) and Criminal Law (10%); Fourth Sunday – Remedial Law (20%) and Legal Ethics and Practical Exercises (5%). Under the Rules of Court, a bar candidate may be deemed to have passed his examinations successfully if he has obtained a general average of 75% in all subjects, without falling below 50% in any subject.

I took the bar examinations – for the first and last time – in 1976 after having graduated in the same year from the Ateneo College of Law. That may already be decades ago but the grueling six-month period of arduous mental calisthenics is forever etched in my memory, easily retrievable by the mere mention of the bar. My constant prayer then was for the bar examiners to ask fair questions and to be reasonably considerate in correcting the papers. Little did I know that I would someday be one of those dreaded examiners, and that I myself would be subject to the crucible of the standards I had set for them when I was an examinee, and even more relentlessly. However, I was not prepared for the realization that to be a bar examiner is a feat far horrendous than the taking of the bar itself.

I had, at the outset, considered it my good fortune to have been handpicked by Supreme Court Justice Adolfo Azcuna, the Chairman of the 2007 Bar Examinations, as the examiner in Mercantile Law that year. It was such a rare opportunity, and I could only commit to giving it all my best. I then wasted no time gathering all my books and materials relative to the subject, going through their pages, making notes, and finally framing the required number of questions and answers, which I reviewed over and over on a laptop that never left my sight from start to finish. After printing a hard copy of the file and personally handing it over to the Chairman, I downloaded the file to my USB, erased all traces of the document from the computer including the garbage bin, and locked the USB in my vault. It was unquestionably my most valuable possession at that time.

The task of formulating the suggested questions would have been easier if I had the freedom to consult professors, colleagues, friends and staff. But this was well-nigh impossible if I were to adhere to the strictest confidentiality required of me. The fear of a leakage and the consequent scandal hung like Damocles’ sword over my head. I just had to keep everything to myself for my own peace of mind, and trusted no one, except my husband out of necessity and for sheer proximity.

I shunned social activities like the plague. I could not trust myself to lie through my teeth in the unlikely event that I get exposed, especially not to friends whose children were taking the bar that year. In the few times, however, that I was obligated to go and was found enmeshed in the usual hullabaloo about the bar, I was thankful that I was not a target of speculation. I was also not counted among my colleagues in court as one of the examiners probably because, by a simple process of elimination, I was the least likely candidate, being relatively new in the institution. It may also be because I had kept to the letter my regular duties in court and, thus, was always visible.

I would check some notebooks in the car while on the way and during lulls in the office. Yes, every minute counts if you had to finish a total of 5,627 booklets within a time frame of 22 weeks, which translated to 255 booklets a week, or 36 a day. I chewed negotiable instruments for breakfast, swallowed insurance policies for lunch, gnawed at stockholder’s appraisal rights for dinner, and picked on money laundering and maritime protest for merienda. With all my indigestion, I no longer trusted the clean bill given to me after a colonoscopy performed shortly before the bar examinations.

In checking the booklets, I was guided by the answers I submitted to the Bar Chairman, as well as the suggested answers formulated by the UP Law Center Training and Convention Division and the Philippine Association of Law Schools. After I corrected the first 200 booklets, I had to devise a point system, which, to a great extent, enabled me to be fair even in times of attitudinal disturbances brought about by the painful stretching of time and patience, and the concomitant lack of sleep. Retiring to bed at past midnight and waking up at 4:00 in the morning became a daily routine that, after many months, was bound to take its toll. Many of my friends and relatives remarked at how my positive aura had dwindled, to which I could only offer some lame excuse.

It may be an understatement, but I have said it, and I will say it again without fear of contradiction, that checking the examination booklets was a more agonizingly laborious experience than actually taking the bar. Much of my difficulty lay on the extra time spent deciphering handwriting and grammar. But, encouraged every time by the thought that my own children will be taking the bar in a couple of years or so, I would read an answer over and over again until I am able to make sense of it, and I can give the corresponding point with due consideration to the effort of the examinee, without compromising the standards set for the legal profession.

I had thought all along that law schools and review centers drill their examinees in answering questions, especially those they know nothing about. But I was sorely disappointed to read prayers of the Holy Rosary and pleas for mercy in between snippets of what appears to be poor paraphrases of commercial law doctrines. Some examinees negligently omitted answers to certain questions, or merely repeated the same answer to other questions. What was unacceptable, though, was that a good number of the examinees failed to answer correctly some very basic questions. I could not, for the life of me, fathom how a bar candidate could describe the Trust Fund Doctrine in Corporation Law as the amount of money deposited in the bank, which the beneficiary may withdraw only when he reaches the age of majority. The worst answer, however, which I had the misfortune to come across, equated Trust Receipt to a popular contraceptive for men. If it was meant as a joke, it was not funny.

My displeasure aside, I finally finished correcting the last booklet in the middle of February, 2008, at least two weeks ahead of schedule. The results were later released with a national passing percentage of 22% after some adjustments in the cut-off grade, which the Supreme Court deemed necessary. I was deeply relieved, not from the hard work but for the job well-done. I may have played only a bit part in the saga of the Philippine bar but it was not any less rewarding. I have perfected the art of time management – juggling between drafting decisions, engaging my children who are enrolled at the Ateneo Law School in stimulating discussions, attending to my 93-year old mother, and being a dutiful wife to my husband. To be a bar examiner is a tough job. But it can be done, as I and those before me have.




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