The bar exams: Post mortem

Two weeks ago, the results of the 2015 bar examination was released. It yielded a passing rate of 26.21 percent, the highest in six years, with 1,731 out of 6,600 plus examinees passing. The licensure exam for lawyers is one of the most difficult in the world, having eight subjects taken in four Sundays and requiring that the examinees garner an average of 75 percent in all the subjects taken. Traditionally the passing rate has been between 15 and 30 percent. In contrast, in New York, the recent bar exams have been branded as the worst in decades because the passing rate has hovered between 61 and 68 percent while the rate used to be higher than that.

The Philippine exams, being largely in essay form, have to be read and graded by an examiner for each of the eight subjects rather than a machine as in other licensure exams which use the multiple type of questioning. This means that each examiner had to read—for the most recent bar exam—more than 6,600 booklets. This manner of testing has been the subject of much criticism from law schools saying that it is an arbitrary process because it is subject to the personality make-up and the mood of the examiner. Many have said that some examiners have been power-tripping at the expense of the law graduates; thus, openly advocating the abolition of the bar examination itself.

I had the privilege of being an examiner in Civil Law in the 2015 bar examination chaired by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro. I was an examiner too in the 2010 bar exams for the same subject. Although I was asked by the Chair to be very reasonable, even generous, in grading, which I later learned she also asked of the other examiners, I realized that much as I personally wanted to pass as many as I could (being in the academe myself) there was something fundamentally and sadly wrong with the answers to the questions. This made it impossible to achieve a remarkably high passing rate. The greater majority of the examinees simply did not have the grasp of basic concepts of civil law. For example, one question I asked was, if two males lived together, could they be covered by the law on full co-ownership under Article 147 of the Family Code, that is, could they share equally in the properties purchased by just one of them during their cohabitation while the other one took care of their home? Many said yes because there was no impediment to their getting married. Really now. Two males could get married in this jurisdiction? What law school could they have graduated from, I asked myself. Many also answered, in a question about the rights of illegitimate children, that they have absolutely no right to inherit because they are illegitimate. Still, there were many whose comprehension of the given question was wrong, resulting in a wrong answer.

Worst, many of the examinees were unable to express their thoughts in English. The English grammar of many of the examinees could shock even a high school graduate who took his secondary education seriously. For instance, nearly a majority erred in the proper use of “is” and “are.” In one question involving two persons, “Y” and “Z,” many said “Z” and “Y” is wrong. Quite a number answered in a circuitous and incoherent manner. For most of the exam booklets, sentence construction, spelling and choice of words were so horrifying that if these examinees happened to pass the bar exams, they would have been a disgrace to the profession and would have caused injustice to their unsuspecting clients.

As an examiner, I dropped nearly everything else I was doing—including writing this column for many months—to read each and every booklet. I wanted the standard of grading to be uniform and as reasonable as possible. But passing the bar does not lie in the hands of the examiners. It does not even hinge on how well one reviews for the bar exams. It lies, rather, in the foundation of an examinee’s four—year law education and, before that, his study ethics from elementary to high school, to college. The ability to comprehend, analyze and answer in a logical and coherent manner is not learned overnight.

Advocating the abolition of the bar examination is not the solution to the poor performance of examinees in the bar examination. Improving the system of educating students from kinder to law school is.

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Topics: bar exams , post mortem
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