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Round - Table Conference on Bar Examination Reforms

(Article published in the Nov 24, 2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Last Wednesday (19 Nov.), I participated in a round-table discussion, organized by the Supreme Court, of suggested reforms of the bar examinations.  The focus of the gathering was the paper written by Justice Vicente V. Mendoza entitled “Towards Meaningful Reforms in the Bar Examinations” which the Justice Jose C. Vitug, chairman of the Committee on Legal Education and Bar Matters, intends to take on a nationwide consultation to seek the views of various stakeholders on the subject. 

Our present system of conducting written examinations was adopted from the Americans in the early 1900s.  Prior to that, under the Spaniards, our attorneys were licensed when they had attained the degree and title of Licenciado de Juridicos and usually after they had undergone a period of legal apprenticeship.  Changes in the scope and structure of the bar examinations were made over the years, but the substance and method remained the same.  Now, some serious thought is being given to instituting a major overhaul on the century-old system.

My guiding principle, in assessing suggestions for reforms, is, of course, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  For this reason, I am still using the same Palm Pilot M-150 despite the accessibility of newer models that, their owners like you to believe, could do almost everything except make love.  Interesting therefore was what Justice Mendoza, who started the ball rolling right after the ceremonials from the charming facilitators and the welcome remarks of Justice Vitug, had to say about what was “broke” in the system.  After all, it was because of the system that I am now broke.


Among the current concerns on the present method of accepting new entrants into the law profession, identified by Justice Mendoza, were (1) the questionable reliability of essay-type questions as the instrument for testing the examinees’ competence; (b) the inconsistency apparent in the grading procedures of the examiners; (c) the subjectivity, if not outright bias, on the part of the corrector, who supposedly is exclusively the examiner himself or herself, both in framing questions and grading the answers; (d) the undeniable significant variance in the over-all level of difficulty of the questions from year to year; (e) the amount of time spent (wasted?) from the time the examinations are administered to the time the results are announced; the (f) the emerging need for computerization or automation due to the almost inevitable increasing number of examinees; (g) the unquestioned inability of the tests to probe into an examinee’s character and fitness and (h) the lack of a permanent bar examination authority with tenured membership.

The changes advocated by Justice Mendoza to address these concerns were grouped under three headings, namely, structural and policy reforms, changes in the design and construction of questions, and improvements in grading methodology.

Instead of being administered by ad hoc Committees on Bar Examinations appointed yearly, Justice Mendoza suggests a Board of Bar Examiners whose members, like the members of the examining boards under the Professional Regulation Commission, are tenured and whose identities are known to the public.

To help the members of the Board of Bar Examiners,  prepare the questions, conduct examinations and mark the answers are “readership panels” for each subject area.  The readers are expected to be most useful in the calibration of essay test answers and marking the test booklets.  At the very least, readers relieve the bar examiner of the tedium of going through the examination booklets all by his lonesome self.

An advisory committee is also suggested to assist the Board and the Supreme Court in tackling the broader issues in legal education, particularly in preparing the law school graduate take the examinations.  The job of advisers is not very demanding and an almost honorific task for members of the judiciary who retire from the service but who refuse to keep quiet.

A major task of the Board of Bar Examiners is to look into the fitness and character of those seeking admission to the bar.  The burden of proof is on the examinee-applicant.  He or she must show “good moral character” including mental and emotional suitability to practice law.  We who are already members of the Bar need not be worried because this rigorous requirement is expected to be applied prospectively.  Deo Gracias.

The design of the tests will be changed from the current pure essay type into a combination of multiple-choice questions and essay questions.  This is patterned after the system in almost all of the states in the United States but this is not to say that the resulting combination will not be pure. 

Finally, Justice Mendoza advocates more scientific methods of assessing the responses to the questions, batting as he does for the “calibration method” and a process of “scoring” which is a bit more complex that the present way allocating points, out of  a maximum of 100, to each one the answers.  I do not have space to detail these advances in evaluating an examination booklet.  But, the general idea is that, in order to score, the examinee must be like Lothario who calibrated his advances to the responses of his amours.

Respectful silence – like that of shepherds and magi before the child in a manger-- is ordinarily my reaction to such a well-thought out proposal.  But Bar Confidant Tina Layusa told me it was Justice’s Vitug’s pleasure that I speak out and give my assessment in the light of my experience as the examiner for Taxation in the bar examinations for 2001.  Thus, although I had written on that on three previous occasions (still available from my website, I took to the rostrum with some remarks hurriedly scribbled while previous speakers thought I was taking notes from what they were saying.   More than twenty years of schooling ensured I had mastered that art.

I sought to remind the participants that the bar examinations ought not be considered as the only method of screening those who want to be lawyers.  The law schools are a major part of that too, and, to a large extent responsible for the problems we are now having.  The bar examinations is simply like the last check just before you board your plane at the airport.  And a system is not necessarily to be discarded simply because a highjacker occasionally is able to do his thing.

I registered exception to the seemingly widespread opinion that Taxation should not be made a separate subject.  I taught Taxation at the Ateneo Law School for more then twenty years.  In this day and age where almost everything is subject to tax, I do not see how making it part of the scope of the examination Political Law or any other subject would properly equip a young lawyer with the instinct to determine the correctness of what the tax authorities are collecting from his client.  Relegate Taxation to a non-bar subject and we will have new lawyers like young priests from seminaries where the curriculum does not include sex education, ministers of the sacrament of holy matrimony but themselves unable to cope with the ways and wiles of the birds and the bees.

Citing the time I could possibly allow for correcting papers without losing my means of livelihood or sanity, or both, the very limited opportunity to probe into the examinees mind (not to mention her heart), since the only contact is a nameless and bloodless examination booklet often just half-filled with illegible hieroglyphics, the changes in both my mood and physical well-being significantly influenced as they are by my wife’s own make-up, and the inescapable  reduction on my socialization, prompting not a few to ask what I was doing in the closet, I submitted that being a bar examiner was not an experience which one would want to repeat.

The demands of the task were simply not commensurate to what was expected to be achieved.  Actually, I was more inclined to agree with Justice Irene Cortes’ suggestion, made many years ago, that the bar examinations be abolished.  But then, it was not easy for an Atenean to admit he had nothing more to add to what a UP Law alumna, no matter how brillant, had to say. 

Various other persons and institutions also made their comments and since the Mendoza magnum opus would be exposed to more consultations, it is best for me to refrain from further remarks, until at least all the votes are in.  We are in a more serious process here than electing officials, you know.

        If you wish to get a copy of Justice Mendoza’s paper and/or to give your views on it (you need not be a lawyer and even those victimized by lawyers may do so), please write to the Supreme Court’s Committee on Legal Education and Bar Matters or to the Philippine Judiciary Academy’s Special Group on Bar Examinaion Reforms, headed by Justice Ameurfina A. Melencio Herrera.  You views will be more welcome than mine.