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To the 2006 batch of lawyers

(Article published in the May 10, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)

The morning after is not exactly the best time for this.  Congratulations still linger in memory; cheer and cheers continue to ring in the air and dilute the blood; brain, brawn and back are all numb, sore and aching from the celebration, ceremony and circus of yesterday’s oath-taking, hand-shaking, and back-slapping.

But then again, today just might be your last moment, for a long time to come, of neither being guilty nor being faulted by anybody for not doing anything. Thus, on the chance that you might listen, even for just a while, let me let loose some unsolicited advice on top of what you undoubtedly already have a surfeit of.

It is very tempting at this stage of your life to fix your gaze at the mountain peaks at the East that seem to whisper, in the diffused glimmer of urban dawn, that that the top is where your destiny lies.  From one who was like you 36 years ago and who now watches in resignation the daily fall of fireball on dark and murky waters in the West, banish the thought.  The top is given to you; your life-efforts simply keep you from sliding down. You are better off at this time in your legal career looking down than looking up.

           For at least four years, you were made to believe that the practice of law consists in the lofty tasks of righting wrongs, in riding on the wings of legal thought and theory, to solve the problems of mankind. Nay not so, much less is that the job for you at the moment. Today, you ought to accept that tomorrow and for many days to come your role will be to be the firm’s or the company’s or your relatives’ notary public.  You are the likely person to be told to seek postponement of hearings, to file just before closing time thick bunches of papers at some dingy government office where the receiving staff is already itching to line up at the bundy clock, to scorch under the sun or soak in the rain as your boss reads the newspapers in his air conditioned room, to take down minutes of meetings your supervisors do not like to attend, and to write memos and reports no one cares to read.  You are the legal profession’s lowest form of life and will be given tasks reflective of that status. That, regardless of whether you were among this year’s topnotchers or, like me in my time and all the other bar passers, number 11 or so.  

There is, I assure you, a reason for all that compulsory humbling.  Practice of law, for the new, and for that matter even for the old, lawyer is in essence what its latin and greek roots mean, namely, to do, i.e. to do law.  Doing, not thinking, nor even the much touted “thinking like a lawyer”.  Practice of law is “doing law”. 

I submit (you are familiar with that condescending phrase by now, aren’t you?) that the best place to start doing law is at the bottom of the ladder, or, if I may use some terminology of liberation theology, at the underside of the profession. Many years from now, when your successes start piling up, your survival depends on your being able to keep your balance.  And your best insurance for not slipping is your unforgettable experience when, literally and figuratively, your both feet were planted on the ground.

Many of your parents’ friends, in good will and kind intention, must have told you that you now are embarking in a totally new journey.  Do not believe completely, the “totally new” part.  You are in reality in the same old journey you started out on when you were born; what is new at this time are only the avenues that your enrollment in the lawyers’ roster open to you.  Loaded on your back, as you now walk, is the bag (later on, with a bit of luck, a briefcase) containing the lessons, both those learned and those unheeded, of your past.  But it is how you carry your baggage that will determine whether you walk upright or stumble to the ground.

Nonetheless, your membership in the bar entitles you to take the new routes’ straights and curves, flats and dips, with a style which non-lawyers call a “swagger”.  That is simply the well-deserved self-respect you earned for having gone through the torture that is law school and the senselessness that is the bar examination.  Walking with that swagger is okay, for as long as, deep within you, you do not forget that style cannot substitute for substance; true merit, unlike English accents, cannot be faked. 

I must warn you that the legal profession has changed profoundly, even in just the time you set your mind to become a lawyer to today when, by the grace of God (you know by now how greatly luck figured in bar exam grades you got), you have become one of us.  Technology has altered the configuration of the workplace.

Word processors have replaced typewriters.  Research is done with a keyboard and a monitor instead of by passing a finger over indexes and leafing through dusty pages of creaking books.  Paper is still in vogue; but more and more, talking is done through cables and modems.  Conferring with client and colleague often means speaking into a plastic mouth piece, or just clicking the mouse with the cursor at “send” to dispatch an e-mail. 

Not everything has changed, though.  Lunch meetings are still conducted every now and then, and this ritual, where you will know who is who by the way the seats around the table are claimed, will continue to be performed for as long as the tax code permits the expense to be deducted from gross income.

Not just tools, the skills the profession demands have also changed drastically.  The bad news is that your law school most likely did not see to it that you had mastery of them. The good news is that everyone else, including us your seniors, is in the same boat.  Clients now require that, in addition to law, you are reasonably familiar with their business, with their concerns and problems.  The recent efforts of law schools to adopt an interdisciplinary approach in teaching law are, as far as I can observe from those before you, still to no avail. No matter how your school had tried, you will nonetheless not be able to know and feel what your client does the way he expects you to.

          In such a situation, two pitfalls are to be avoided: first, to pretend you really do; second, to show that, honestly, you don’t care.  Pretense easily shows, like a fake DVD.  And seeming not to care, even because the concern is “not legal”, is a sure way of driving away a client.

What is to be done, in my view, is to candidly ask your client to enlighten you. A client is always pleasantly surprised whenever he sees a humble lawyer.  You client will willing enlighten you and, to boot, will secretly be ever grateful for being able to prove to himself, as he had believed along, that he knows more than you do.  Remember, it is the client who pays your fees; hence, you ought not begrudge him a momentary sense of superiority.  In the same vein, your client’s boss is always the lowest scorer when playing with his staff at Manila Golf Club.

Clients too have changed recently.  Gone are the days when understanding the law was limited to the legal priesthood and was forbidden knowledge for the rest of mortals. Laymen now have many sources of legal information.  Legal talk shows and law-centered columns abound. They are proven avenues in aid of election or, at least, advancement in professional standing. Moreover, everyone has a lawyer relative or friend who hands out advice for free. Also, a number of company executives have their private legal advisers. In your first meeting, therefore, you ought to assume that your client knows more than you about the point of law he is asking you about.

But, do not be disheartened.  No matter how much more knowledgeable your non-lawyer client is, he cannot go to court and demand to be heard.  You, however, can call the attention of the judge by simply saying, “Your Honor, please.”  Your likely nemesis is a client who is also a lawyer.  I can tell you that.  I had the fortune, or misfortune, of having to represent lawyers.

The present crop of client’s depth of legal knowledge is also matched by the unparalleled breadth of his interest.  Every client now is “global”.  Not only because television and radio had made neighbors of all of humanity, but because almost every Filipino family, by now, has someone who is, or has been, or will be, abroad.  This development, in my view, has the same challenging import as the discoveries and realizations that the world is round, that the earth revolves around the sun, and that, most likely, man descended from the apes.  Those of us your seniors who have come to grips with the problems sown by globalization of Filipino life have ourselves yet to understand the full implications of this phenomenon.

Do not, however, be discouraged.  Very soon you will hit your stride.  And you will know you are getting the hung of practice of law when you openly admit you do not know everything, when you recount to friends as many lost cases (if not more) than won ones, when you renounce the idea of being an expert in all fields of law, when you refer your family, which always wants free legal advice, to other lawyers.

          And you very soon, as seasons follow seasons, will know you are really into the practice of law when you begin to see that it is not law that creates harmony amongst men; it is hearts loving and understanding.  It is not penalty that makes a man upright, it is the values his elders started teaching him by word and deed long before he could stand up straight.  It is not how high one reaches  for the stars that make a lawyer great; it is how low he can bend himself to touch a fellow human whose face is in the mud.

          When home comings all of a sudden become obvious events to attend, then you will sit back, and call in some punk who just took his lawyer’s oath, and let loose some unsolicited advice on top of what he undoubtedly already has a surfeit of.