A Lawyer’s Career


It is the bar exam season this month. This year holds perhaps the highest number of examinees, close to 9,000 compared to the average of 6,000.

In six months time, we will soon be greeted with a new batch of lawyers. They consist of a goof mix of young and older professionals, with some having changed professions along the way.

Whether the newly-minted lawyer will be new in the workplace or a seasoned professional but new to the legal profession, kindly allow me to welcome you to the legal profession in advance and share a few crumbs from the humble pie that is usually served to rookie lawyers.

A lawyer's career
Mentoring and teaching law

1) Nobody has figured it out.

This thing called legal career (as if there is an illegal one) is not a clear and straight path. Far from it, you’ll have to navigate your way through various practices and disciplines. Your once desired practice (for many, litigation) may not be so appealing once you’ve figured out the job description and how goes the practice. Rest assured that many who came before you had their own realizations. As I recall, current International Criminal Court Court (ICC) Judge Raul C. Pangalanan once remarked in our Constitutional Law 2 class on how he started as a labor lawyer. There is also Dean Pacifico Agabin, a recognized Constitutional Law expert, is fond of being introduced as having started as a labor lawyer, as reflected during our Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) last October 2018 at the UP Law Center.

Hence, to help you with your career path, it would be great if you find a mentor early on. He/she may be your boss (in such case, you are very lucky!) or one who has more experience than you and has a genuine interest or stake in your career development. This rings true when you are asking for a life-changing career advice which for some could be mean crossing the Rubicon. Thus, consider carefully the person giving the advice. It would be wise to follow the advice of the person doing what you want to do or, at the least, has experienced what you want to do. Simply, ask a tax lawyer if you want to do tax practice, and not a family lawyer. Ask an entrepreneur if you want to go into business, and not a lawyer or family member who may have no experience on entrepreneurship. The same goes for academic pursuits, involvement in causes or non-governmental organizations, and taking Master of Laws (LLM).

2) Nobody knows everything.

Due to law school training, you likely fear not knowing everything and thus doubt yourself. You will probably carry that thought for first six months from signing the Roll of Attorneys. One day, it will sink on you, after continuously observing your colleagues and superiors, they themselves do not know everything. You with very limited experience are of no exception. So, take heart.

Hence, keep your cool. Your value to the firm or the office is your fresh and untainted perspective (you are not yet jaded). You are more likely updated with new laws and jurisprudence. Build on this strength with every tidbits that you acquire as you progress in your career. On a personal note, I recommend to young lawyers having a law journal where you can record techniques and rare skills/advice that are handed down to you by those who you interact with, in your office and outside in the field. Take notes! Memory is unreliable, so goes a familiar saying. By taking notes, you also reinforce the knowledge and skills you have picked up.

3) Be more organized.

Crazy work hours, mountains of work, and never-ending meetings, will greet you when you start working. Your relationships could breakdown. Your life (and health) can easily be turned upside-down. Worse, your overall well-being could be prejudiced.

Hence, get organized. Learn and master the principles in the book entitled Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen. It will help you get more organized and teach you that your mind is not a storage bin (you do not have 1 Terabyte of storage capacity). Rather, your mind is designed to be creative, which is the more valuable part of you than being a walking encyclopedia. Your creativity is hampered when your mind is full of useless information. Once you develop a GTD System, you will be able to manage the demands of work, come up with creative solutions, and more importantly, have more time for your relationships, health, and well-being.

4) Prioritize your health.

The world will tell you that to be successful you have to sacrifice. This is usually in the form of rendering more work hours, skipping healthy meals, and foregoing regular exercise. Because of the ingrained teaching about hard work (to the point of it being a dogma to many, who view contrary thinking as blasphemous), and the undue premium given to sacrifice (almost nobody would contest this, particularly if faced with the complimentary argument of “for my family”), many will develop serious health problems in the first five (5) years. A few will suffer from stroke and heart attack, at a tender age (because these can happen to anyone regardless of age contrary to popular belief).

Fact: A college batchmate of mine in UP Diliman (we went to different law schools) died of a heart attack at age 31, approaching his 6th year of practice. Before, I only heard of stories from the grapevine, notably of an associate who bowed down in front of his computer. Unknown to his colleagues (who thought the poor guy just doze off), the young lawyer already died. There is also the founder of a prominent Makati law firm who died while playing soccer. (Talking about this will probably draw me flak and disapproval from more senior lawyers who hold on to the above-mentioned traditional beliefs of hard work and sacrifice.)

Let me be clear, and due respect given to senior colleagues in the profession, I value having a strong work ethic. I value hard work. I value sacrifice.

I also value efficiency and effectiveness. With the advancement of technology (e.g. email, scanning, Viber/Skype, printing etc.), there are better ways to do work. People are more productive when they are not tired, at least on this point we could agree on. One more point we can agree on is the impact of traffic consuming at least 4 hours of travel time to and from work. Make the connection and place them in parallel with office policies, there should be something that you will figure out. After all, we as a profession pride ourselves of being intuitive (as we have been trained to think on our toes since law school or face flunking).

Hence, sleep more, eat more healthy food, and do regular exercise. There is no shame in taking care of yourself. In the poem Desiderata (which appears to be the mantra of my beloved mother), it speaks of these valuable life lessons: be gentle on yourself and strive to be happy. Thus, never apologize for prioritizing your health and happiness.

5) Get mentors.

Law is just a fraction of your life. While it may seem at times that your life revolves around your work, kindly note that there are other aspects of your life such as family and friends, health and wellness, wealth and finance, career and business, and so on. Many will not see the value of these other aspects of life as they will continue burrow themselves once more (as if law school and bar review were not enough) on law books and tomes of law-related reading materials. Fast forward several years after, the same group will wonder what happened to their relationships, health, finance, and career, when they finally take out their heads out of the sand to see the outside world and experience the warm sunshine, cool breeze, and lovely persons interact with each other.

Hence, as young as you are in your legal career, find mentors in these various aspects of life and learn from their experience, whether good or bad. See how their learning may apply to you or how you may be able to avoid their mistakes. A personal finance mentor once told me a story of an elderly judge who got sick with a serious illness related to old age. When this happened, the wife and the children were at a loss realizing that there was no insurance or any form of contingency for such a serious illness. Thus, the family was constrained to borrow money from relatives placing themselves in huge debt. While the story ended up on a good note as the judge recovered, and the family was able to pay the debt in due time, the family learned a valuable life lesson on personal finance after this incident. They since then have made it one of their priorities.

So, a lawyer’s career is… how you design it to be.

(Author’s note: To the Supreme Court and the IBP, I have a high degree of respect to the courts and our judges. My intention of citing the anecdote on the the judge is to be true and fair to the story and the valuable lesson it provides for personal finance, and nothing else. Please don’t issue me a show-cause notice. Pax! Thank you.)