Legal education’s reverse roll of honor

Published May 15, 2019, 12:18 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat


By JUSTICE ART D. BRION (RET.)                                                 

J. Art D. Brion (RET.)
J. Art D. Brion (RET.)

Unlike candidates for public office who are chosen by popular vote, law schools prove their worth and reason for continued existence through demonstrated performance, largely through their students’ Bar exam grades.

The Bar exams’ top 10 highest scoring examinees and their law schools appear in a media-created Roll of Honor and are recognized for their feat. History and experience validate this recognition: students of these law schools become the country’s leading law practitioners, political and business leaders, and magistrates.

Completely lost in this reckoning are the bottom dweller law schools – those whose Bar candidates consistently fail to pass the Bar exams. These are the Reverse Honor Roll law schools whose sad task is to drag their fallen academic gladiators out of the arena and to console them in their misery.

These scenes play out, time and time again, as the annual Bar exams results are announced. Unfortunately, the public only remembers the happy part of these scenes – the ecstatic glee from the successful examinees of the Roll of Honor and the near winner schools. They forget the teary silence and gnashing of teeth of those in the Reverse Roll of Honor whose hopes, time and again, have been dashed on Bar exams’ hard and unforgiving rocks.

I dwell on the sadder part of the Bar exam story as I cannot disregard or allow the consequences of bad legal education to simply rest. Beyond the individual interests of law students, their families, and law schools, is the public interest that we should not forget.

History and experience also teach us that lawyers do not only end up leading the country; they affect the general public who rely on them for everything touched by the law. Lawyers give legal advice that affects lives, liberty, and property. They win or lose court cases – local and international – for the litigating public.

Not a few lawyers lose their cases because of incompetence, negligence, or apathy. Unlike doctors whose patients die and whose failures may be self-evident, post-mortems are hardly done on lost legal cases. Losses are often charged to causes other than professional failure.

The nurture for a successful practice of law starts in law school classrooms. A close analogy is the much-quoted British claim that they defeated Napoleon and won the Battle of Waterloo “on the playing fields of Eton.”  In like manner, we should seriously mind legal education for it is the foundation of our nation’s life in the law. This foundation, in my view, is very weak.

Lest I be called an alarmist, in the recently announced 2018 Bar exams results, only 22% passed – results that are hardly encouraging nor complimentary to our legal education system. Success rates closer to 1 successful examinee out of 5 cannot at all be called an achievement.

Based on official figures, the Bar exam has an average passing rate of roughly 25% per year (or 1 out of 4 examinees) in the past 20 years, save only for a highly unusual passing rate of 59% in 2016.  The passing rate performance during this period shows:

199839.63%; 199916.59%; 200020.84%; 2001 – 32.89%; 2002 – 19.68%; 200320.71%; 200431.61%; 200527.20%; 200630.6%; 200722.91%; 200820.58%;  200924.58%; 201020.26%; 201131.95%; 201217.76%; 201322.18%; 201418.82%; 201526.21%; 201659.06%; 201725.55%; 201822.07%.

For the years 2012 to 2017, the number of minimally performing law schools (or those with 10% or less passing rates) in the Bar exams are:

2012 – 73 out of 117 (62.39%); 2013 – 67  out of 120 (55.83 %); 2014 – 65 out of 126 (51.87%); 2015 – 54 out of 130 (41.53%); 2016 – 5 out of 124 (0.04%); 2017 – 50 out of 131 (38.39%).

On the other hand, the Reverse Roll of Honor (or the number of law schools with 0% passing rates) during this period are as follows:

2012 – 33 out of 117 (28.20%); 2013 – 29 out of 130 (22.30%); 2014 – 30 out of 126 (23.80%); 2015 – 28 out of 130 (21.53%); 2016 – 4 out of 124 (3.22%); 2017 – 50 out of 131 (38.16%).

Thus, without the 2016 highly unusual outlier, an average of 26.8% of law schools (or 1 out of 4) had zero (0%) passing rates since 2012.

These figures demonstrate, even to lay readers who have not been following Bar exam trends over the years, how bad the results of our legal education have been.

Thus, we should commend the Supreme Court for its initiative to call a Legal Education Summit in July of this year to discuss recommendations to the Legal Education Board  on measures to adopt to improve legal education, and to the Supreme Court on the possible amendments to the Bar Examinations Rules attuned to our country’s needs.

At the Summit will be law deans, court magistrates, and officials with interest in legal education, and representatives of law students. A Summit website shall inform the general public of developments.

Hopefully, the Summit – with the participants rising above their parochial interests – will be discerning and bold enough to recognize under the present circumstances that –

  • Legal education is not for everyone but only for those who are qualified to handle its rigors based on reasonable entrance standards.
  • Regulators should have the maximum flexibility to immediately close down law schools that no longer serve the public interest.
  • Not every lawyer is qualified to teach law; only those who qualify based on recognized experience or qualifying standards/processes should be admitted to the legal academe.
  • A selective moratorium on the opening of new law schools should be declared until the regulators determine that existing law schools with acceptable levels of performance can no longer accommodate those desirous and qualified to take up Law.
  • The regulation of law schools should rest with the Judiciary, preferably through an independent agency attached to the Supreme Court.
  • The Bar exams require a re-examination – both as to coverage and process – aimed at serving legal advocacy needs and the ends of justice.

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