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I have been a lawyer for four years now, but every time bar exams season rolls around as it does now, I feel a sense of dread. I am transported back to 2010 when I was a barrister, facing the biggest career hurdle of my life.

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I didn’t plan on being a lawyer. My father, who is one, never influenced his kids to follow his footsteps. But when my life took a few turns and I was faced with a dead-end, my mother gently asked if I wanted to try law school. With no other option in mind, I assented. By then, I was older than most of my law school blockmates but I joined a sorority and found great friends who saw me through.

After graduation came the bar exams. My first reaction was fear, and then pressure slowly made its way in.

The bar exams is the test to end all tests for lawyers. As a background, the first Philippine bar exams were held in 1901 with only 13 examinees. The next hundred years would see the number of examinees climbing up to about 5,000 at a time.

The topics covered are Political Law, Labor Law, Civil Law, Taxation Law, Commercial Law, Criminal Law, Remedial Law, and Legal Ethics. It is usually a combination of essay-type questions and multiple choice but formats could change, depending on the Supreme Court, the facilitating body of the Philippine Bar. This year, the exams are scheduled for all Sundays of November.

When I was a barrister, the exams, which was purely essay-type questions, took place in September. We had five months to prepare, and those five rigorous months were, without a doubt, the loneliest part of my life.

Because I couldn’t study in a group, my parents luckily allowed me to rent a Makati studio. I went into hermit mode, not leaving my room, not even for meals, preferring to call Tapa King or McDonald’s for sustenance. It reached the point where Tapa King would text me every day, asking what I wanted for breakfast.

And while my family was there supporting me every step of the way, at the end of it all, it was me against the big bad bar.

September came, and stress went up a whole other level. Saturdays saw my parents taking me to the hotel, hearing mass with me, and then leaving me to panic. Wake-up calls on Sunday were at 4am, but I was always up at 3am, worrying.

Answering the exams was like squeezing your sleep-addled brain for whatever it could give. You could see your seatmates, equally tortured, handling stress in different ways. There were people throwing up in the bathroom, some crying in their seats, and others who finished early, looking defeated. There was even an examinee who took the bar while hooked up to an IV drip. This went on for four Sundays.

Traditionally, the last Sunday is called “Salubong” where there would be marching bands and loud cheers awaiting the examinees. It was always complete and utter chaos, with examinees drenched in beer and water balloons. During my time though, the Legal Ethics exam required superhuman effort. We walked out late, expecting to celebrate, only to be met with the infamous bombing incident.

Instead of cheers, we were greeted with the sight of people being carted off in stretchers. Needless to say, there was no celebration during the 2010 bar exams. It was the year the Supreme Court put a stop to all Salubong activities and relocated the bar exams from De La Salle University in Taft to the University of Sto. Tomas in España. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

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Then the waiting began. It was tricky: I was relieved that the worst was over, but my life was suspended until the results. I could apply for a job but that was no guarantee of a permanent position. I had to pass and take the oath. I preferred to wait because I did not feel good about the bar.

People told me to think positive and to claim the results, but positivity wasn’t enough. I hoped to make it, but my spider senses told me otherwise. I started to prepare my game plan for my second take, much to my parents’ chagrin.

January came and I decided to get a job, if only to stave off the anxiety of waiting. My grandmother whom I was very close to, was bedridden at the time. My personal life was nothing to write home about, there was a lot going on. The closer it got to March, the more I couldn’t sleep. I contacted a friend who worked at the Supreme Court to be the bad cop, just in case. “Don’t be too shy to break the bad news to me,” I asked of her. “Just say it.”

She promised.

I failed.

It was March 17, 2011 when I got the phone call from my friend: Sorry, you didn’t make it. You cannot imagine how something already expected could still blind you for a few seconds. My brother called soon after, telling me the same thing.

Another friend called to congratulate, but she was looking at the wrong list. I was too stunned and asked if she was sure because two people already broke the bad news. It was awkward for me and, I imagine, all the worse for her. We laugh about it now, but I give her a hard time every year.

The worst part about that day was my choice to spend it with other people, hoping the distraction would help. It didn’t because they all made it, except for me.

I asked to be brought to the hospital where my grandmother was confined so I could meet my family. I traversed the hospital corridor asking about my grandmother, only to find out that I was brought to the wrong hospital.

When I reached the right one, I started to cry even before I saw my mother. When I saw her, she said, “We told your Lola Mama that you passed because she can’t bear any more bad news. Please act like it.” I was, to say the least, flabbergasted. I understood, but I couldn’t fathom: How I was to act happy when I felt that the floor was giving way? I just remember thinking, Okay, how am I going to pray to Lola Mama when she thinks I passed? She’s going to scold me!

I allowed myself three days of grieving. Then I got up and started to prepare for the next one. I remember going back to school with Monina, another friend who didn’t make it, to talk to the dean about our next steps. We felt branded because there were only 13 people who didn’t make it from our batch. All the law students knew who those people were.

Monina and I fought off the urge to run from the stares. We got advice from the dean who tut-tutted at us, but eventually made us feel better. We bought, on his advice, a whole new set of books so we could start anew, so to speak. We went through the motions of review classes and isolated ourselves, in turn.

Personally, the second round was more relaxed. I allowed myself to watch movies alone and I allowed my friends who passed the previous bar exam to take me out when I was throwing mental tantrums. I prayed more and studied smarter. Of course there were dark times but through it all, I never entertained the thought of not trying again. I had to do this again.

Fast forward to November 2011: The format was changed to all multiple-choice questions. The exams were held in UST. It was a completely different ball game, and we lost the little advantage that second-takers usually had: familiarity.

My family and I went through the same routine: On Saturdays, they heard mass with me and then left me to panic. I went through the same Sunday morning routine, Monina and I marching like soldiers into UST.

The tests were difficult because it was just A, B, C, or D. There was no room for explaining, which was what all law students ever do. My second Salubong was more somber than the first, but my family and sorority sisters managed to drench me with beer and water balloons.

This time I decided to really wait for the results before I attempted to do anything. I read my old (non-law) books, and started to feel like my old self again. I went out with Monina and forged a friendship that we would not have had under different circumstances. It felt like we went through hell and back and lived to tell the tale.

It now feels like an exaggeration, but at the time, nothing in our small world mattered except passing the bar exams. On the day of the results, I camped out in my hotel room and watched every Downton Abbey episode known to man. I was strangely calm and disconnected from reality.

A little after lunch, my phone rang. All I could hear were shrieks. I MADE IT. I ran to my mom and shrieked some more. It was indescribable. I remember when my brother passed, my mom had just gone through an operation and wasn’t allowed to exert unnecessary effort but she jumped up and down like a little kid. It was the same for me.

It was agonizing to fail the bar the first time but I got more out of it than just pain. I acquired a lifelong friend, I discovered a strength in myself I didn’t know existed, and I appreciated the friends who stuck by me when I was at one of the lowest points of my life. I have no words for my family whose love carried me through and would have carried me through a hundred more failures.

Four years later, the bar exams still give me the jitters. I feel for every barrister and their families. I join them, every year, in prayer and support.

If I could give my barrister self advice, I would tell her that law school is a bubble, and there is a bigger world out there. That I failed the first time should not have crushed me as much as it did. It was not the end of the world.

I’d tell myself to talk to non-law students, to my college friends who would tell me to take it again if I could, or change career paths if I couldn’t. No need to make life difficult for ourselves.

I’d tell myself that although the stigma that surrounds a person who did not make it the first time is present, it should not consume us. There is space for everyone, no matter how long it takes.

Illustrations: Madel Crudo

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