Do we need legal education reforms?

Published January 16, 2019, 12:05 AM

by Justice Art D. Brion (ret.)



The Legal Education Board (LEB) ended 2018 with a resolution directing law schools to issue a uniform Juris Doctor (JD), instead of a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.), degree for the basic law program. It opened 2019 with a Resolution making the converted J.D. degree the equivalent of a doctoral degree without need of passing the Bar exams. The equivalency was solely for purposes of the graduates’ appointment/employment, ranking, and compensation.

These actions – particularly, its move of equating basic legal education to a doctoral degree – led the LEB into the eye of a storm of objections. Some quarters simply saw the move to be wrong. Others discerned that their interests, monetary or otherwise, were threatened.  I am sure the LEB has its reasons and shall soon share these with the public.

Controversy, of course, is not new to the LEB.  In the last two years, it aroused one in the legal education community when it introduced the PhiLSAT – the Philippine Law School Admission Test – that required incoming law students to take and pass a centrally administered admission exam to gain admission to law school.

Many law schools – through the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS) and its deans – objected, although many of the objectors privately saw the move as a way of raising legal education standards and performance. In public, however, the objections persisted because the admission test would affect the law schools’  enrolment and financial bottom line.

The LEB weathered the controversy and PhiLSAT is now an accepted requirement for those entering law school.  What kind of compromise came to pass was never publicly disclosed, but it is not farfetched that the net result was the admission of more freshmen to law school; thus, now, the objecting law schools no longer feel threatened.

For a time, there were objections, too, to the LEB requirement that law school deans should have a Master of Laws degree, while a percentage of the law school faculty (40%, 60%, and 80% in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively) should at least have a master’s degree, or at least 10 years of law school teaching, or be a recognized LEB expert, among others.

As finally implemented, the requirement for deans was only applied to those appointed after the adoption of the regulation; the requirement for the law faculty remained.

In these lights, legal education is now definitely on the move. Significantly, the Supreme Court is not to be left behind; the chief justice recently also aired his views on the need to reform the Bar examinations.  It appears that the Court is concerned, among others, about the emerging scarcity of practicing lawyers in the country; it wants to explore adjustments in the Bar examinations as one of the solutions to the problem.

Legal education, of course, is a matter separate from the Bar examinations although they affect each other; substandard legal education cannot but translate into poor Bar performance.  Despite their interdependence, they are in fact operationally separate because of the constitutional separation of powers principle: Bar admission has been entrusted by the Constitution to the court while legal education is an executive competency.

Whichever way the matter is viewed or handled, however, the core problem for both legal education and Bar admission is the competence of law graduates/Bar examinees taking the Bar exam and entering the annual pool of new lawyers, assuming the Bar standard of difficulty to be constant.

In question form, are our legal education and the Bar admission systems now delivering every year to the nation law graduates who are qualified to be new lawyers with the capability to ably represent the public’s legal and litigation interests?

From the empirical data on law school graduates and the Bar exams results, I am afraid that the general answer is NO.

The records show that in the past 20 years (subject to minor fluctuations and outliers like the 2016 Bar examinations where 59% of the examinees passed), an average of only about 25% of Bar examinees hurdled the Bar every year. This record leaves us several nagging questions, among them: what shall we do with the 75% who flunk?

Should the LEB close down the law schools whose graduates consistently fail in the Bar exams? Notably, from 57 law schools in school year 1990-1991, we now have 130 operating law schools out of the total of about 150 accredited by the LEB.  Did this increase improve or worsen the pass/fail situation?

These thoughts and the questions raised, however, are the simplistic ones that only consider the immediate results from the Bar results perspectives.   How and why many of our law schools cannot deliver a higher annual passing average is a much more complicated question whose LEB-provided answers can only serve as starting points.

Immediately, the LEB can deliver to the nation and to the other “players” in the making of new lawyers, the hard facts within its control and its recommendations on what should best be done to improve the delivery of legal education. Uncertainties, however, lurk beyond its empirical answers.

Despite this reality, I am sure that the other players, the Supreme Court, in particular, will find the LEB situation report and recommendations very helpful in formulating its own policies on the Bar exams.  More than this, the LEB reports can be the start of a fruitful dialogue between LEB and the court on how their cooperative efforts can improve both legal education and the Bar examinations.

Many other parties can likewise contribute to a LEB-SC dialogue. Among them are the PALS, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the CHED, and the association of law students in the country.  The results of the dialogue will surely benefit the law profession, the rule of law and the nation if all these interests are heard.

Thus viewed, the need for legal education reform and for fast action cannot be denied.

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