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Amid 2023 Bar exams, three successful lawyers recall failure and how they maintained grit and grace to finally pass

By NICK GARCIA Published Sep 23, 2023 5:05 pm

A total of 10,816 law students are taking the Bar exams this month, with the hope of becoming lawyers in service of Filipinos. But the bittersweet, inevitable reality is that not everybody’s hope will immediately be fulfilled.

The Supreme Court (SC) said 4,984 of this year’s examinees are taking the exams for at least the second time. Last year’s results also saw 3,992 passers out of 9,183 examinees.

Three Filipino lawyers, who are already carving a niche in their respective legal careers, talked to PhilSTAR L!fe about how they didn’t pass the Bar exams the first time yet maintained grit and grace to be where they’re at right now.

In 2018, Atty. Hyacinth Merioles, an associate of Ajero Law Office and Balajadia Law Offices, remembered how “unprepared” she was for the exams mentally and psychologically speaking.

In fact, it wasn’t the first time she’s had a setback. When she was still studying in 2007, Merioles recalled falling into depression due to the pressure of schooling and the aftermath of her breakup. She also had to navigate the life of being a single mother.

Examinees prepare for the 2023 Bar exams in San Beda College.

“I left law school thinking that it was over for me,” she said.

During her hiatus, she said she had to “allow” life to happen by performing as a singer in gigs and raising her son alone—all while battling her inner demons. She also turned to self-care habits like undergoing energy healing and attending yoga classes.

Eventually, she befriended a trial court judge, a “kindred spirit” who offered her a job and set the stage for her to return to law school in 2013.

“I never felt more inspired at work and in school,” she said, noting public prosecutors, public attorneys, litigators, and court staff served as her mentors.

Merioles took her chances again last year, studying six hours every day leading to the November exams. Her son, family, and friends also served as inspirations.

After 15 years, Merioles has finally become a lawyer, the best birthday gift she could ever hope for this year as she turns 40.

“I always had that inner knowing that I was destined to become a lawyer. I anchored myself back to that truth.” — Atty. Hyacinth Merioles

Atty. Mika Sollano, who works in the Senate but first reported for Medialdea, Bello, Guevarra & Suarez Law Offices for nearly three years, recalled being “broken” as she’s the only person in her circle of friends who didn’t pass the 2014 Bar exams. Her boyfriend at the time also passed.

Sollano, 34, recalled waiting for the results while inside the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Chapel in Quezon City with her best friend and other anxious examinees.

“You could cut the tension with a knife,” she said, even as she told her sorority sisters to just inform her best friend about the results.

This year's Bar exam takers line up at the University of Santo Tomas.

Sollano then noticed those around her leaving in tears. While some individuals were jumping in joy and hugging each other outside the chapel, she felt something was amiss.

“My best friend asked someone else,” she said, “and we found out na wala ako sa list.”

Sollano remembered being holed up at home for a week, no longer having the will to carry on.

“It was horrible,” she said. “It was a lot of questioning and sulking kasi I didn’t understand what I did wrong when I read everything that I possibly could,” she added, noting she studied every day over her six-month preparation save for a two-day break.

“I was lost,” Sollano said.

After another week, with an outpouring of support from her loved ones, Sollano somewhat regained her confidence.

“I realized this was my dream,” she said, “so I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Atty. Patricia Bonifacio, a junior associate of Palafox and Romero Law Firm, meanwhile came back with a vengeance by passing the 2020/21 Bar exams with “exemplary performance” after failing the 2019 exams. (Examinees who scored above 85% were recognized for their exemplary performance, as rankings were removed at that time.)

Bonifacio, 30, recalled crying a lot because aside from failing, the thought of having to go through everything again during such uncertain times, she said, was painful. The world froze in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the exam results came out the following April, the second month of the government-imposed enhanced community quarantine.

“I felt like my life was put on hold,” she said. “So, I just dealt with my emotions since I know I will not be able to pick up my books again with a heavy heart or a lingering sadness.”

The police inspect the belongings of this year's Bar examinees.


What added to her anxiety, Bonifacio said, was the absence of vaccines, the lockdowns, the people she knows who were getting sick, and the continued postponement of the next Bar exams.

“It took me two years to take the Bar (exam) again. Everything felt uncertain back then,” she said, adding her grandmother and mother tested positive for COVID-19 in 2021, which made it difficult for her to focus on studying for the Bar exams she didn’t know when would be returning at the time.

Bonifacio said she had to divert her attention and energy to something else, taking it one day at a time. She also prayed hard for acceptance and courage—all while her closest ones were there to support her.

When she’s ready to study again, Bonifacio said she evaluated herself by listing the things she probably did wrong and identified how to address them on her second take.

What work, what didn’t

Looking back, Merioles said she was able to flip her fate thanks to belief, discipline, and self-care.

“I always had that inner knowing that I was destined to become a lawyer. I anchored myself back to that truth,” she said. “I knew that every activity I was engaging in then that allowed me to become happy and positive. [It’s] in preparation for the achievement of what seemed like an elusive dream then.”

Nonetheless, Merioles regretted allowing herself to be weighed down by failure once, which led to an unhappy, half-lived life at one point.

For Bonifacio, one of her mistakes was always being on the lookout for circulating “good materials” for review, so much so that she’d always alter her own reviewer. She also had a fear of missing out, never refusing quality time with family and friends.

“The second time around, I really focused on myself,” she said, noting she stuck with her personal review materials.

She also managed her “FOMO,” as she cannot afford to compromise her second take. For her, it’s okay to focus on reviewing first and missing out on a few occasions, as those occasions are bound to happen again over the coming years anyway.

Bar exam tips, wisdom

For Merioles, a conscious effort is necessary to pass the exams, specifically by setting a schedule for studying.

“You've got to devote time and your all to it. Set your mind, instill discipline, follow your schedule to the letter,” she said. “But if you’re tired, you also yield to your body's call. Rest and get up again, soldier on.”

Religiosity is also helpful for Merioles, as prayers may do wonders and bring to light inspired answers during the exam.

For Bonifacio, she practiced answering would-be exam questions ahead. It’s also important to overcome one’s fears in the name of passing, and for once, become “selfish” with one’s own time and energy.

“Before I started my review period, I made a schedule,” she said. “I plotted the number of days I will dedicate to the particular subjects, and days I would take a break.”

A man hugs and kisses a woman who's about to take the 2023 Bar exams.

She also reminded the 10,000-plus takers that the Bar exams are akin to the several exams they already took up in law school, which has also prepared them for at least four years anyway.

“Everything you need to know is already within you,” she said. “It's actually a test of character, so when you feel like giving up, remember your whys.”

Bonifacio also told those who’d be taking the Bar exams again to forgive themselves and make peace with the past.

“It's already done, but you still have the capability to do something about tomorrow,” she said.

“Stick to what worked for you in law school. Don’t be pressured by what other people are doing or reading.” — Atty. Mika Sollano

For Sollano, the Bar exams are one-third preparation, one-third luck, and one-third emotional quotient. She also advised against overburdening the self, as it may lead to burnout.

“Stick to what worked for you in law school,” she said. “Don’t be pressured by what other people are doing or reading.”

For her, reviewing one material over and over again leads to mastery, getting one far in the exams. It’s also impossible for a taker to not know the entire exam, according to Solano.

“Don’t aim for a number of reads, aim for comprehension,” she said, adding mock Bar exams may also help.

She also shared with this year’s takers a nine-point reminder she got from her sorority sisters when she failed the exams: grieve, rest, forgive; accept; assess; fight; pray/meditate; positivity; listen.

“It is not a race. It doesn't matter how many times you take the Bar,” she said. “In the end, we all get there and that's what matters.”