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From doubt to dot: Working student looks back on her 7-year journey to becoming a lawyer

By Nevi Calma Published Dec 06, 2023 7:57 pm

Seven years of studying, three law schools, one defining moment. 

Sitting at the very desk where I dedicated endless hours to studying for the 2023 Bar examinations, I find myself recounting the emotional rollercoaster that followed the revelation of my successful attempt at being a lawyer. The surreal feeling persists as I am now addressed as Atty. Nevi, a title that once seemed out of reach.

There’s kilig when I am being called Attorney. Messages of congratulations flood in from various circles—family, friends, colleagues, and even distant acquaintances.

What they are seeing now is only one moment, but it's one that did not come easy. 

Life as a working law student

My journey started in 2014 when I had to make a decision between continuing my career as a field reporter and embarking on the path of law. Despite my passion for journalism, I opted for the latter, believing I could always return to the newsroom. I bid farewell to media and ventured into the world of law, stepping into what students call the "Jurassic Park."

To fund my studies during my first year, I applied as an instructor at a university in the province. Days were divided between teaching English, Communication, and Broadcasting to students—some of whom have since pursued careers in media or law—and attending evening classes on law. One of the requirements I will never forget is meticulously crafting handwritten, cursive digests for a staggering 176 cases in Criminal Law. Yes, 176. 

In 2015, a career opportunity from a big media company was presented to me. I accepted it after careful consideration, knowing well it meant a hiatus from my law studies while relocating from the province to Manila. But I resumed my legal journey in 2016, and underwent, yet again, the rigorous process of gaining admission to a law school in the bustling city.

A look at the author's study area

The harsh realities of being a working law student swiftly unfolded, revealing an almost unbearable strain. Picture a typical day: laboring from 6 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m., then navigating a 30-minute to an hour-long commute to reach law school by 6 p.m. for evening classes until 9 p.m. Returning to my apartment by 10 p.m., the night was far from over as studying persisted until the wee hours—sometimes until 12 midnight to 2 a.m.—only to rise at 5 a.m. to prepare for the workday ahead. In some occasions, I found myself battling overwhelming fatigue, so I had to lock myself in a cubicle within the office restroom so I could take a brief nap. 

I remember taking a motorcycle taxi during the final exams season in 2019. Exhausted from studying until 3 a.m. and rising at 6:30 a.m. to resume studying and prepare for work, I struggled to keep my eyes open. En route to an important summit I needed to attend, I found myself on the brink of sleep, which made the driver urgently call out "Ma’am!" to wake me up.

At that point, I was tired. No, tired is an understatement. I was giving up. 

It was all taking a toll on me and I was beginning to question my ability to even finish law school. Years of digesting cases, recitations that stripped me of my confidence, books full of annotations, boxes of read (and unread) materials, moments of opening test booklets while crying (either because I passed or failed), mini heart attacks upon seeing the words “Grades are in,” canceled flights, missed family celebrations and milestones, and daily pondering with only one question: “Bakit ba kasi ginusto ko pang maging abogado?

From 2019, I felt like I was in a limbo. I was taking review classes, which I had a hard time completing even though they were supposed to be finished in just a year. I felt like I was close, yet so far from the Bar. Few units left, that’s true. From the viewpoint of an outsider, “Konti na lang 'yan.” However, the reality is starkly different. Amidst this pursuit lies a pervasive sense of uncertainty, casting doubt on whether I'll fulfill my remaining units in time to sit for the next Bar exam.

Claiming the dot

The Bar examinations are held only once a year. One shot. If graduation and qualification aren't achieved in the current year, another agonizingly prolonged wait ensues. This single chance each year creates a weighty pressure.

In waiting while struggling, I was asked a lot of times, “Ilang years ka pa ba?” or “Kailan ka ba magba-Bar?” I saw them coming, really. After years of relentless study, the assumption is that the Bar exam is just around the corner. In response, I would offer a rough estimate of the semesters left, unable to elaborate on the setbacks–from failed exams, the relentless grind of being a working student, the constant dual stress, grappling with tardiness or absences in class or work, and the intricate balancing act between life and the demands of law school in this metaphorical Jurassic Park. 

Because most of them will never understand because that’s the way it is, in law school and life in general, pain is personal. One can never comprehend the weight unless he/she is in the same situation. Even for law students and Bar candidates, the circumstances vary so one can only sympathize with another, but can never have a full grasp of the turmoil inside. Walang makakaintindi sa bigat, kundi ang mismong nagbubuhat.

But to my relatives and friends who asked that, don’t worry, I’m not offended. Why? Because I asked myself that question, too, several times: “Nev, kailan ka ba magba-Bar?” Only in a more haunting, frustrated, and hopeless tone. I knew in this limbo, nothing is sure. I only had this never-ending doubt. This towering fatigue. When you’re in that state, it's easy to fall in the pits of mediocrity, spiraling from the pedestal of excellence you have once set as the only acceptable sphere.

It took the author seven years to claim the dot in Atty.

In my case, that downward spiral occurred in 2020. By then, I had departed from the media industry and transitioned into my current job. The onset of the pandemic prompted law schools to shift to online platforms. During this time, I contracted COVID-19 and underwent a month-long isolation period, juggling work responsibilities and attending classes whenever possible despite my illness. It was my choice to do so.

That year posed additional personal challenges that pushed me to the edge. Struggling to maintain focus on my studies, I sought comfort in habits that further derailed my academic progress. Consequently, I fell short of meeting the academic requirements. This setback led me to transfer schools once again—my third one.

I only had two subjects left when I transferred. But due to the policy of a mandatory one-year residency, I had to spend an additional year at the new law school, which I took as an opportunity to review for the Bar. The hope in 2022 was to sit for the Caguiwow Bar, needing to pass just one subject: taxation. Unfortunately, my attempt proved unsuccessful again, so I had to wait another semester to enroll in this one subject. Eventually, in 2022, all the required units were completed, culminating in my graduation in July 2023.

Blessed with unwavering support from my agency and understanding colleagues, I was granted a study leave. I secluded myself at our provincial home from June to early September. Locked in a relentless study routine, my days commenced at 9 or 10 a.m., stretching well into the following day until 4 or 5 a.m., averaging over 10 hours of intense daily study sessions, even extending to 16 hours on some days. I was studying on my birthday, on my brother’s birthday, in the car or bus, anytime, anywhere I can find an opportunity.

Within this grueling schedule, I had emotional breakdowns every now and then, times that I would just bawl my eyes out while flipping through pages of my reviewer. There were instances where I found solace in fervent prayers, kneeling in desperation to find the strength I felt slipping away. Periods of overwhelming nausea struck, suppressing my appetite—I shed two kilos during the review period.

Bar exams came. On the first day, a trifecta of hurdles ensued: At 8 a.m., my laptop refused to power on just as the Political Law exam started. By 10 a.m., my monthly period arrived, so while being under time pressure, I had to go to the bathroom to put on pads. During lunch, severe stomach discomfort from diarrhea added to the ordeal. Post-exams, overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy, I wept for almost an hour at my unit, tormented by the fear of incorrect or insufficient responses. Fever struck me the following day.

On Days 2 and 3, however, I soldiered through. On the last day, I maximized my time of answering and was one of the last Bar candidates to turn their exams in. I thought that seeing my family outside my testing center holding the banner with my face and name would bring me to tears. Instead, I just felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Believing I had given my utmost effort, I knew that I no longer had control over the results.

The author with her loved ones after the 2023 Bar exams

Fast forward to today, the seven years of studying and grappling with three law schools, all bore fruit. I got the dot in the Atty. in one take! I'm thankful to my family, relatives, friends, law school and Bar buddies, workmates, and everyone who, in their own ways, showed their support not only during my Bar review but throughout my journey to becoming a lawyer.

To my fellow working law students or Bar candidates, I am sharing this excerpt from my daily affirmation during the review: You have worked hard for this dream. You cried over midterms and finals, downed thousands of coffee cups, stayed at different coffee shops to digest cases and review. You endured humiliation at recits, sleepless nights, daily commutes from the office to the school. You spent a lot of money for this, too. And a lot of time. Don’t waste any of it. Bring all these sacrifices to fruition. One last stretch. Let’s get that dot, once and for all. Let’s do it without regrets. You’ve got this. You can DO this.

When you believe that you cannot do it and when you lose all the motivation, you have to go back to your whys, as what 2023 Bar Chairperson Justice Ramon Paul Hernando said. These, in my case, are: family, justice, women’s rights, and, as clichè as it may sound, ang bayan.

Moving forward, in this legal profession, I will always remind myself of my whys.