Dear young would-be lawyers,
My concept of law was born on my grandmother’s dinner table: “Joel, remember this: One grain of rice equals one year in Hell.”
If by any chance I failed to wolf down a lump of rice after supper, say, a good one hundred sticky grains, then I’m cursed to spend the next 36,500 days–while alive!–in the Devil’s pit, bludgeoned by fire, brimstone, nightmares, and his rusty pitchfork.
That’s for a single meal. It was such an effective scare tactic that it landed me with an obesity problem that took me decades to mend, thanks to the principle of the starving artist.
The day arrived when I started questioning that law. “What do you think, Wowa? If I ever get good lawyers, do you think they can bring the sentence down to three years? Maybe even three days?”
In that nick of eternity, I thought of wanting to be a lawyer. But then again, one crazy day led to another and, voila! I ended up as a journalist and a writer to the consternation of trolls.
Thus, I do not in any shape or form presume to know the law profession–from its most superficial claims to its profoundest assertions. What I am about to say here is more of a plea from one human being to the other, a defense of reason, if such were possible under the circumstances. And the circumstances, mind you, aren’t so encouraging.
In a March 2021 report by Carlos Conde, senior researcher of Human Rights Watch-Asia Division, 61 lawyers had been killed under the previous administration alone. That’s more than half of the 110 murdered human rights lawyers since 1972, including the 22 who fell under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Many were killed for their defense of human rights. The National Union of People’s Lawyers said, ‘almost all perpetrators have never been brought to the bar of justice.’”
The pursuit of justice doesn’t have to be heroic. All it requires is for a lawyer to be humane.
I don’t usually get in the sorry habit of upsetting fresh graduates, especially the close to 10,000 would-be lawyers who are currently taking the bar exams. However, I feel there is some necessity to this act.
See, the line you’re about to cross, if by any chance you choose to champion human rights, is nowhere near being a demilitarized zone. With it comes the thick smell of gunpowder, the thunder of boots, and the odor of conflict between human rights and authoritarian control.
Blood stains the streets you will soon walk on, if not your own then those of your colleagues, maybe even friends. The fear this evokes is real, even if one realizes ultimately that the good you are about to embrace, however reluctantly and fearfully, is much greater than the terror that haunts its heels.
Today, it’s a graceless, almost pitiful profession to stand for what is right at a time when power chooses to turn everything wrong-side-up. What's more, every young would-be lawyer is free to choose the path he or she must take, barring right and wrong, and no one has the luxury to judge them for walking that road.
But if you must choose the appropriate path, as I hope you will, know this: The intelligence you use to liberate victims of repression results in your own liberation. You begin to feel free and good at what you’re doing, having turned a largely demonized profession in the eyes of skeptics into an act of compassion.
In your hands, and by your expertise, justice becomes tangible, genuine, not just another speck of philosophical filth blown in the wind. Of course, good lawyering in and by itself does not assure anyone of anything. Other factors play their part. But working towards this goal does offer huge benefits to yourselves and your clients in a loosely played justice system.
For one, you’re showing the world that, come what may, you wouldn’t agree to anything less. Putting your foot down always counts for something.
Idealistic? Perhaps. Practical? You can bet your Tootsie Rolls on it. If you think about it, idealism and practicality are twin notions that provide civilized society its nut and bolt. One cannot hold up the superstructure without building it the right way. Which is why turning it all wrong-side-up through violence, corruption and tyranny destroys the very superstructure despots claim to protect.
That is why government negligence is the true enemy of the State.
The pursuit of justice doesn’t have to be heroic. All it requires is for a lawyer to be humane. To treat the other not merely as paying (or worse, pro bono) clients, but as yourselves during your best and worst days.
No, it will not get you the much sought-after celebrity status on Instagram, or free Yves Saint Laurent bags worth $33,800. But for people who matter, the good you’ve done regardless of the threats “echoes in eternity.”
Congratulations, young lawyers! Now you have the chance to fulfill every human being’s sole job description: to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper. Welcome to the fight.