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Becoming Great Lawyers: The Role of Law Students in Upholding the Rule of Law

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

By: Robby Brian De Guzman

“[T]he truth remains true that never have our people had greater need than today for great lawyers, and for young men and women determined to be great lawyers. Great lawyers— not brilliant lawyers. A scoundrel may be, and often is, brilliant; But only a good man can become a great lawyer.” - Senator Jose “Ka Pepe” W. Diokno's Letter to his eldest son, Jose Ramon

When Ka Pepe first wrote these words while in detention in 1972, he was only responding to his son’s simple request─ a list of law books to read. Elated by his son’s decision to become a lawyer despite witnessing his own arrest and detention, the human rights activist wrote about the true measure of being a great lawyer. The letter, although written many years ago, could have been written yesterday with its relevance both to lawyers and law students alike in today’s times.

It is not hard to tell that these are not the best of times in our nation. We are studying law at a period when due process of law is considered as unnecessary bureaucracy when the law is weaponized against anyone who would dare speak truth to power, and when the very institutions mandated to uphold the Constitution become agents of fear rather than protectors of liberty and human rights. One may ask then, “What is our role as law students in upholding the rule of law?” The answer is quite clear. Now more than ever, the challenge to every law student is to strive to become tomorrow’s great lawyers— not just brilliant lawyers.

But how do we become great lawyers?

In a world marred by widespread inequality, not only is the rule of law the last bastion of hope in preserving our rights and dignity as human beings; it is the raison d'être of the legal profession. The moment it collapses, our future profession becomes obsolete as lawyers become reduced to pawns whose only purpose is to put up a façade of legitimacy for a system run by whoever is in power or who can give the highest bribe. After all, it would be pointless for law students and lawyers to master the law if it could not be invoked and given a binding effect in our practical lives. Thus, it is every law student’s responsibility to ensure that the rule of law reigns supreme in our country.

To assume, however, that the rest of the public shares this appreciation and devotion to the rule of law would be a mistake. Sadly, people have lost faith in our laws often perceive as highly legalistic and serving only the interests of the rich and the powerful. And not without any justification, the law is considered by many of the poor and the powerless as an inconvenience, or worse, a tool for the scrupulous elements of our society to remain unpunished and free.

If we are to become great lawyers, we are expected to find solutions that would elevate the rule of law when it seems to have lost its utility to the ordinary man on the street. As law students, we owe it to our soon-to-be profession to live by the words of former President Ramon Magsaysay that “he who has less in life, should have more in law; that the little man is fundamentally entitled to a little bit more food in his stomach, a little more cloth on his back and a little more roof over his head”, amidst the growing climate of hopelessness and resignation.

It is our foremost duty, as law students, to study well─ to read, understand, and analyze every provision, section, and article of law we study in class. Our chosen career requires the highest degree of diligence, patience, and perseverance; in addition to many late nights of reading voluminous pages of law subjects.

As law students today, we are the lawyers of tomorrow. We must always remind ourselves that our future profession is about advocating for our client’s cause and we can only do so if we have a clear grasp of the law. The life, liberty, property, and hope of those who trust our expertise depend on every law, cases, and commentaries we read, or not read, during our stay in law school.

Clearly, if we want to contribute in upholding the rule of law in our country it is our duty to arm ourselves with idealism and passion strengthened by the knowledge of the law- all while cultivating our critical thinking, strong reasoning, and analytical skills to distinguish the finer points of the law and its application.

To become great lawyers— not just brilliant lawyers, however, law students must be more than skilled technicians trained merely to practice our trade. In a plethora of cases, the Supreme Court has consistently reminded members of the Bar that lawyering, more than being a trade or occupation, is a noble profession.

In addition to being masters of the lessons thought in our law subjects, we must develop character. We must cultivate, even more than a deep knowledge of the law, the conviction to do what is true, just, and right, and to resist compromising our ideals and values. We must not only be experts of law but also principled and passionate advocates for its application for genuine and meaningful change. We must not only be steeped in the language of the statutes and the Court but also fluent in the language of truth, justice, and rule of law. We must not only use our voice to recite provisions of law verbatim but also to speak out for those who cannot speak. This is what is meant by the nobility of the legal profession.

As future lawyers, we must constantly challenge the unjust and oppressive status quo and create new conventions and traditions if only to empower those who find themselves powerless. While there is truth in the view that laws will only be as good as the minds of the people that make, interpret, and implement it, would it not be more ideal to say that laws will only be as good as the people that fight for it?

Our role to safeguard the rule of law comes with the challenge to ensure that it is the rule of just law. It is, after all, not only a set of convenient solutions to the country’s problems; but an embodiment of our people’s collective aspirations toward justice. The rule of just law must be the goal of every democracy and entails more than mere adherence to the rules we memorized for our recitations and examinations. Rather, it requires that, when faced with a choice, we must choose to uphold that which guarantees the fundamental values of truth, justice, and human rights.

Wielded properly, the law has the power to do so much good─ safeguard our rights, protect the citizens, punish criminals, and hold wrongdoers accountable. It does not only determine right and wrong but instills order and justice in a society. But even if it has the power to do all this good, law, when weaponized, can also be used to jail the innocent, free the wrongdoers, silence dissenting voices, and revise history. As potent as it is in effecting change, the law is vulnerable to evil and evil forces.

For this, we must choose to uphold the rule of just law, even when those in power have made it difficult, if not completely impossible, to do so under the pretext of rule of law. This means that, when human rights and due process are disregarded in the guise of swift solutions to problems, or when the law is trampled upon and twisted to suit the interest of a few and powerful, or when the law is reduced to a numbers game, we ought to be the first to stand up and say that that cannot be.

As law students, it is our identity, mandate, and mission as future members of the legal profession to stand for our principle. We need to make a stand. And to make a stand we must act. More than merely contemplating the idea of justice within the confines of our law schools, we must confront the common injustices of our society and seek to address them.

For years, law schools have been integrating legal aid programs as part of their curriculum not only to give their students opportunity to have hands-on experience in the practice of law but more importantly to extend free legal assistance to indigents and marginalized sectors, which include urban poor, farmers, migrant workers, laborers and indigenous peoples community. By providing our legal assistance─ giving legal advice, drafting pleadings, attending hearings, and doing legal research─ all without charge, we are able to heed the call to take up the cudgels for the poor and marginalized who are rarely given the opportunity to fight freely for their rights. We can also volunteer in law student organizations or civil liberties groups who are actively working to respond to the legal needs of ordinary Filipinos who have no means of securing legal assistance due to poverty or lack of knowledge. Our laws, after all, exist to achieve justice for all and not only for a privileged few.

Lastly, we must speak out with truth even against the overpowering tide of popular opinion. To be able to do the right thing in the face of such great resistance requires the strength to choose what is right even when it is difficult and everyone else is against us. In this current war against truth, justice, and human rights, we must insist on what is true, just, and right. Our silence at a time of abuse and oppression is complicity and our inaction is an encouragement to undermine the rule of law.

In Ka Pepe’s letter, he described a conversation he had with one soldier who asked him, “Pero sir, kailangan pa ba ang mga abogado ngayon?” And in a way that perhaps he did not intend, the soldier raised a perfectly valid question. There he was a human rights lawyer detained in a cell while the nation remains in the grip of a dictator who does not respect the rule of law. Hopeful that the rule of force would soon yield to the rule of law, Ka Pepe highlighted the need for the best of our country’s men and women─ great lawyers, engineers, economists, and managers─ to clear the shambles and restore the foundations of that noble and truly Filipino society for which our forefathers fought, bled and died.

More than three decades later, as our human rights and fundamental freedoms face grave threats once more, it would be easy to favor the convenient choice over the right choice. However, we must always remember that great lawyers, like diamonds, form under great pressure and the most challenging conditions. Becoming a great lawyer is not taking the path of least resistance; rather it lies in choosing to forge ahead even when confronted by challenges and struggles. To borrow the words of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, “it is not on the mountaintops of grandeur and glory that greatness shines. It is in the valleys of the shadow of death, in the grit and dirt of the battle trenches. It is in your utmost extremity when you find yourself overwhelmed by darkness, but continue to hold fast to your principles, that you blaze the brightest.”

*Robby Brian de Guzman is the First Placer in the First ever Barrista Solutions Essay Writing Contest. He is a student at the University of the Philippines College of Law.

Note: The views expressed in the essay do not reflect the official position of Barrista Solutions.

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