“Law is an instrument of power and can be a weapon of oppression.”
This is the second article of a series on my experience as a teacher. The first column, published online in the January 15, 2022 issue of this paper, was on my experience as a philosophy student and professor. In the conclusion of the series, I will share my experience as a teacher during a pandemic. This column is on teaching law, which I have been doing for three decades.
Paradoxically, because law is an instrument of power and can be a weapon of oppression, this commitment to the truth was reinforced when I decided to become a lawyer and studied first in the University of the Philippines College of Law (UP Law) and then later in Yale Law School.
In UP Law, I was taught by professors like Professor Haydee Yorac, former Supreme Court Justice Vicente Mendoza, Prof. Owen Lynch, Prof. Alfredo Tadiar, Prof. Ruben Balane, Dean Merlin Magallona, Dean Pic Agabin, Dean Salvador Carlota, Prof. Araceli Baviera, Prof. Samilo Barlongay, Prof. Myrna Feliciano, Prof. Popo Lotilla, Prof. Domingo Disini, and others. There are many things I can say about these teachers – that they are opinionated or sometimes too passionate for example – but definitely one thing they taught me was the importance of intellectual honesty and personal integrity in the way we behaved as law students and future lawyers.
Yale Law School was a wonderful experience, and continues to be the best academic experience I have ever had. In Yale, honesty and integrity were a given, expected from all of its professors, students and staff. Brilliance too was a given. It was a memorable experience being told by then Yale Dean and now US Court of Appeals Justice Guido Calabresi, when he welcomed first year JD and LLM students with the conclusive statement that we were the best and brightest in the world and we did not have to prove anything in Yale as our professors, also the best and brightest in the world, knew this. But brilliance was not a reason for pride, certainly not a means to hurt other people.
For me, more than the knowledge and set of skills I learned from Yale Law School, the great take-away was the realization that you can be a great lawyer and still be always kind and compassionate.
Having been taught by these great teachers and others in Yale Law School, having lived the New Haven experience, I became a much better teacher and human being when I came back to the Philippines.
In the 1990s, after law school, I moved to UP Law and taught my first generation of law students. And when I became an Undersecretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from 1996-1998, I was joined there by a group of young lawyers who looked up to me for mentoring and professional guidance.
Those lawyers are now in the prime of their careers in the Philippines and globally and continue to reach out to me for guidance and occasionally I serve as their professional references when they apply for new positions.
Since those DENR days, even in my years abroad as an OFW professional, I have mentored dozens of young people in the fields of environmental law and policy, governance and politics, and social entrepreneurship.
In Malcolm Hall, in UP Law, the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes are inscribed in the lobby: “The business of a law school is not sufficiently described when you merely say that it is to teach law or to make lawyers it is to teach law in the grand manner, and to make great lawyers.”
I would like to think that starting with UP law in June 1990 and now with the dozen other law schools I teach in all over the country, including four in Mindanao, I have been teaching law in a grand manner and have helped thousands to become good lawyers, including great advocated for big causes greater than them or their families – to be workers for justice, to fight corruption, to protect the planet, to be in solidarity with the poor.
Thomas Merton once described mentoring as an “apostolate of friendship”; it’s a relationship that I strive to have with my students and mentees.
Next week, thousands of law graduates will be taking the bar exams, the first ever in a pandemic under extremely stressful and challenging circumstances, but I am sure it will live up to its aspiration as the best bar ever. I will pray for the success of all the examinees, but will say a special prayer for the over 400 of my former students from UP, Ateneo de Manila, Xavier University, De La Salle University, Far Eastern University, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Liceo de Cagayan, Lyceum University, Rizal Memorial Colleges, and the pioneering batch of University of Makati. I pray also for the examinees from Cor Jesu, University of San Carlos and Ateneo de Zamboanga as I have a relationship as well with these schools.
To all examinees next week, do make this the best bar ever!
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