The school you choose

In the midst of the corona virus pandemic enveloping the globe, life decisions have to be made. There is comfort in the thought that the world continues spinning and each day comes and goes, reminding us that there IS tomorrow.

Although there is much uncertainty about the face of education given our current dilemma, there are hopes and dreams that cannot be put on hold — more so those that involve deciding where we will go, or what we will do. The school calendar hasn’t completely stopped — school has just taken on a new face, until we can grapple with the challenge of going back to what used to be without causing the spread of more infections.

I’ve been writing about life in New York in the time of the Corona virus, and I was ready to begin a post focusing on my day in Central Park two Saturdays ago. That will have to wait.

I woke up to this email at from a lawyer wannabe. That was indeed a pleasant surprise and at the same time, it is not, being that my most popular posts in the blog relate to the pursuit of a legal education. That’s the main reason why the posts dedicated to this topic are grouped together under a specific section. I am no expert in this field but I’ve lived it, and I’ve always been more than happy to give my two cents on this topic near and dear to my heart.

So our lawyer wannabe wrote:

“I came across your blog as I have been sad and lost for the past weeks because I did not get into my dream law school – the Ateneo Law School (ALS). I typed “I didn’t pass Ateneo Law School” in the Google search bar and your blog came out. Your stories are very inspiring!

I graduated from De La Salle University (DLSU). While taking the Ateneo LAE again next year is an option, my family and some friends are telling me to take DLSU Law instead since it is still a good school even though it is relatively new (10 years), and also it is the only school that is still accepting applicants for this year (2020).

My question is if your law school would really matter in long-run?
Say in the workforce? In firms or in the government? After I graduate law school and pass the Bar, I am also planning to live either in New York or D.C. And I think it is coincidental that I was able to find your blog.

Looking forward to hearing from you!”

And the Pinay New Yorker says:

Let me preface my answer with the caveat that this is MY personal opinion. This is in no way cast in stone and some people might disagree, but like I always said, I write here for my personal benefit, not to gain profit or followers, or to persuade others.

I am, however, being cautious. I have learned through the years that what I write or say here does make an impact. I have been heartened by emails or comments from young people back home — and some of those that have meant the most came back years later with an affirmation that their efforts saw them succeeding in their chosen path. I don’t take credit for any of that, just that as we say in the vernacular, nakakataba ng puso. It warms my heart.

So you asked if your law school would really matter in the long run.. Yes, it does.

But I think that’s not really your question based on whether or not which school you choose really matters. You’re asking if you should keep trying for the Ateneo School of Law. (It is ASL not ALS)

My personal choice/s. I had only three law schools in mind, and my first choice was UP Law, having come from UP for my prelaw, and the alternative — not a second choice, —was Ateneo School of Law. It was one or the other. I did take the entrance exams to San Beda Law as a back up. That was my second choice. I had gone to college to go to law school — so I was getting into a law school come what may. Being a lawyer was a dream I had nurtured long before I even graduated from high school. Everything I did was meant to get me there.

I wasn’t cocky enough to think either or both my first choice was a sure shot, because I knew I was competing with hordes of other hopefuls. My time in UP taught me one thing — I sit among people with the same if not more superior intellect than I possess. No matter how good I thought I was, there were hundreds more who would clearly edge me out. I took the entrance exams knowing that I was in a numbers game. If luck was not on my side, I would not be as high on the totem pole as I would hope to be to make the cut off.

I also took the exams accepting that making it to any one of the three schools would be my dream come true. Unlike you, I had not singled out one school. If it was meant to be, they would choose me. My grades were passable but not stellar, but I prepared with word power exercises with the intent to “exercise my brain” and improve thinking speed. There really is no “studying” for these entrance exams, because they are aptitude tests that gauge your suitability to the course based on what you already know. I knew I had the English to carry me through an eloquent essay. And I gave that essay my all.

So why did I choose these three schools? UP was obvious and not because I think it is the better school, but because I was from UP, and everyone thinks highly of the state university which is a reputation well deserved. Ateneo was as good a choice as UP because I consider their academic standard equal, but I also knew their bar passing rate was higher. San Beda appealed to me as a good back up choice because of their distinguished list of alumni which seemed to back a solid reputation as well.

At the time I made these choices, I was a full time student, our business was doing okay so I had no money worries, and I had the determination to land in law school. I was at the threshold of seeing my dreams come true.

So as it happened, UP said no, and Ateneo and San Beda said yes. But with a yes from ASL, that was that. I would have loved to have landed UP, but even if I didn’t make it to Ateneo and ended up in San Beda, it was the pursuit of a legal education that mattered to me. Then and even now, I lived by the mantra that if it was meant to be, it would land on my lap.

Does it matter which school you choose when it comes to finally going out into the real world? This, to my mind, is not an exclusively law school related question. This is a question that everyone asks even when it comes to college education. And the reality of it is, it does.

Whether it is in the field of law or of any other profession, when people hear you’re from UP or Ateneo or yes, even DLSU, they look at you differently compared to the other universities. When hiring people and going through dozens of resumes for any given position, your academic background will make you stand out. The truth is, the school where you come from gives you that added edge. If, say, you’re hiring for an entry level position, and you are faced with candidates who are fresh graduates from UP, Ateneo and DLSU and other schools, the resumes with these three schools will be on top of the pile. That is the plain truth. All things being equal and the position requires the mental acuity that these institutions are known for, you would pay the successful candidate the same starting salary. So there is a tendency to prefer one from the so called top schools over the others. That sounds very biased but it is how it goes.

Of course, this is not to say that the hiring manager has no other preferences to consider. Their own alma mater always figures, but is not always a deal breaker. In the long run, experience tops the academic background although it will always be a consideration.

I do believe that the better question that you should be asking is which school would best prepare you to pass the all important hurdle of the Bar Exam. This question is answered on a case to case basis, because not everyone has the same personal circumstances. Not having made it to your dream school doesn’t mean that you are not cut out for the legal profession — it just means you didn’t make the grade for ASL. Do not compare yourself to the others who made it — they might have performed better than you did during the actual test, or they answered the essay question a certain way. They might have better grades. It doesn’t make them better than you — it just meant that by ASL standards, they and those who passed, made the grade.

The Quality Percentile Index requirement of ASL is also very rigorous, seeing the original freshman class dwindle to half by the time they make it to the bar exams. So while working students may make it to the roster as freshmen, it is not the best environment for someone who is working full time during the day. It requires a different kind of focus and tenacity to make it through the rigorous curriculum.

If you feel very strongly about giving ASL another try, remember that they don’t accept transferees, so you cannot go to one law school this year and transfer next year. And I hate to say this, but taking the entrance exam a second time is no guarantee you will make it.

I consulted one of my friends who has a successful practice and is a name partner in one of the law firms in Makati. Here’s the voice from the other side of the table — the one hiring. I am paraphrasing his answer to your question, but he believes that the quality of applicants is apparent depending on which school they came from. But it isn’t one school vs. the other. He separates UP Law and Ateneo law as a class all its own. “There is a presumption of competence and capability as compared to other law schools. x x x. Those who came from these schools tend to have the ability to think critically and question the norm.”

I cannot speak about UP Law or San Beda Law because I came from Ateneo. I know that years after I left and I successfully passed the Bar with a cursory review, I realized what training I got from the case overload and the questions that seemed to be pulled from several different books or chapters I hadn’t even gotten to yet. Even the dress code made sense to me. What had appeared to be arrogance by some professors showed me a different side of the the legal field. I still hear the lectures I heard ringing in my ears when I reminisce sometimes. Through blood, sweat and tears, I lived my dream.

Weigh your options very carefully. If DLSU Law is an option — do not take the relatively young history of their law school against them. Faculty comparisons don’t always work as well as you don’t know which professors will be there when you take a certain course. Also, it’s not unusual to have two professors teaching the same subject, so seeing a star faculty member in one roster doesn’t mean you will get that professor. That is not unusual because these professors are not full time faculty — they all have a legal career. I have friends who are UP Law or Ateneo Law graduates and who are now teaching in UE and FEU, so do not belittle the lesser known law schools, and more so the younger ones.

Ateneo Law and UP Law have very rare “crossovers”, as most of their faculty are their own alumni, but it is not unheard of. During my time in Ateneo, I was fortunate enough to have had the chance to be taught by an esteemed UP law professor — the only one from the “other school” who taught in Ateneo at that time. So to land in DLSU law doesn’t meant that you won’t have those occasional UP or Ateneo Lawyers at the helm of a class. It has also been touted that they have the deep pockets to pay decent honoraria to these professors from the other schools to beef up their faculty.

My two cents: Focus on the here and now. While worrying about the future is a real question that you will hurdle in time, you are faced with the first important step to get there: making it through law school. You can land in your dream school, but getting from the first to the fourth year of that arduous course is going to be a big hurdle by itself. Get to a law school of good repute. They each have their standards — Respect that. And yet do not let yourself be cowed by their refusal. Instead, work on making that your crutch to prove them you will be a passing statistic for the other school that accepted you. That’s what I told myself — when I pass, I will be part of the passing statistic of Ateneo. That’s one less for UP.

Wherever you land, do not think of the “could have been’ s”. Think of the “what is.” Not landing in Ateneo doesn’t mean that you won’t be the best damn lawyer you can be in the future. Whether you decide to stay in the Philippines or move here to the US, you will always be a lawyer wherever you are. You will be a legal eagle whether you practice or not, for as long as you live your dream, survive law school and pass the bar.

If you choose to move here, will it really matter to the firms here that you studied in Ateneo or UP or DLSU? Only if they came from those schools themselves. When you get here, it’s a totally different ball game and another Bar exam. Right now, you train for that if that is your end goal, and any decent law school can bring you to that point.

Is money a problem? Is English proficiency lacking? Are you starting a family? Are you supporting siblings? No. The one big thorn on your side is that you didn’t get to your dream law school.

I get it, the disappointment is eating at you. You have to get over that, and get over it quick. You will have many more of that in whichever law school you land in. I remember many tests where I thought I did okay and my grade was many levels below what I expected. Or those days when I memorized dozens of codal provisions only to be asked about a case I didn’t even get to read the digest of. I remember telling a professor I did not read the case. He gives me a second chance with another, and still, I didn’t read that either. And I sit down, head bowed. I remember semesters when I nervously gritted my teeth as the grades were released praying as hard as I can that I make the QPI. (You will understand what I mean when you get to law school.). I was lucky that by my junior and senior year, all classes were in the late afternoon and evenings, and I kept going even when I had to work full time to support myself through the second half of law school. How I envied my classmates who were full time students — whose lives revolved around being able to study all hours of the day and saunter into class without worrying about rushing from work to school. And finally, when I sat for the bar exams armed with more hope than actual preparation, I wrote with the determination and feigned confidence that would convince the examiner I could argue my case, even if I answered the question incorrectly.

You have the English to get you through.. I can see that. You have the fire in your heart. Don’t let the fact that ASL didn’t accept you snuff that out. Don’t make it the be all and end all of this dream. Focus on what you have and work on that.

You want to be a lawyer.

Law school is just a step towards making that come true. Get yourself on that road by studying as hard as you can and never let go of the dream. And write me five years from now that you passed the Bar.

Related posts on the topic of law school and the pursuit of a legal education based on my personal experience can be found in this section: Lawyer Wannabe

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