It appears that my previous column expressing support for CJ Lucas Bersamin’s proposal to reform the Philippine Bar examinations has caught the attention of some, even meriting a TV interview on the same topic. May I continue to discuss this.
Yes, I agree that the Bar examinations have to be reformed, pursuant to the directive of CJ Bersamin, but it has to fit with Philippine culture and our collective personalities. Reform in the Bar examinations will take a lot of convincing. Even if we change the system overnight, the risk of it being overturned by the succeeding Chief Justices or Bar exam chairpersons would be high. So, it is important that the “idea” be sold and accepted, first by the stakeholders, particularly law professors and reviewers, law school deans, law practitioners and, of course, the Supreme Court (SC) justices. We can all recall the shift of the examinations to a multiple-choice question (MCQ) format some eight years ago for it be reverted back to a completely essay format.
I am also of the opinion that the change has to be gradual, not overnight. We have to consider the unique situation of CJ Bersamin who will retire even before the next Bar examinations in November. As such, I suggest that a five-year plan be formulated for the exams to be completely overhauled.
As for the pass/fail format, yes, the Philippines can follow the US model, where the passers will not know their exact grade, and those who flunk would be informed of their grade so they can assess where they went wrong and if it will be worth to take the exams again. One thing I know from studying for so many years and teaching for a couple more is that Filipinos are very grade conscious. We want to see our grades, and, if possible, its breakdown.
Hence, my proposal is that, at first, we continue with the numerical grading system, but the Supreme Court should not publish who the topnotchers are, similar to what it is doing now, and for the grades to be released only upon the request of the examinee. This way, the SC would lessen the fanfare surrounding the Bar exams and we can move on with our simple lives much faster.
One thing to consider on why we should not adhere completely to the US model is that they conduct the examinations very differently from the Philippines. Note that the passing rates in the US are relatively high: The US states with the lowest passing rates are Washington DC and California at around 44 percent, in New York it is 56 percent, and it can go as high as 83 percent in Missouri. In the Philippines, we average at 25 percent. This means that of the 7,000-plus that take the Bar examinations every year, we roughly get 1,750 new lawyers annually.
However, it is my position that the shift to a pass/fail format must be partnered with a change in the substance of the exams. The questions have to include more analysis on the part of the examinee. There should be portions where the examinee is required to render a legal opinion based on the facts and law already provided. This way, you can see how a potential lawyer can actually think on his/her feet, not just copy-pasting what is in his/her memory. To allow the examinee to write the best way he/she can, then we have to consider if the exam can be done through handwriting or through the use of a laptop. Do consider that there are only a handful of abogados de campanilla left who actually write their pleadings or dictate to their secretaries — everyone else types!
For reference, in the NY Bar exams, a special program can be run on a personal laptop of the examinee with a specific time limit and the results would be transmitted once the time expires. This program is installed before the start of the exams right at the venue. We can explore introducing this which I think would not be too costly.
But the most important change, in my opinion, has to be the holding of satellite test centers in select areas around the country. This would be a popular decision as it shall mean less expenses for examinees. Decentralizing the Bar would effectively bring the law nearer to the Filipinos. After all, provincial law students have been topping the Bar for the past years — they deserve this.
I can keep on writing about this topic, but too much analysis leads to paralysis, they say. I hope that this message would reach law deans and professors and to the law students. Change may not be overnight, yet may be forthcoming.