Jan 24, 2023

When "Lawyers” Become Illegal

Jan 21, 2023

A FRIEND of mine consulted me about a problem: For several months, he was consulting a "lawyer" who turned out not to be a lawyer at all. To make matters worse, he was conducting his business on the basis of the impostor's advice. I told him that he is indeed in a predicament, and the unauthorized practice of law is as old as the hills. In fact, I remember seeing on television a lady who was apprehended by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation immediately after she left the courtroom. The reason for the arrest was that she was misrepresenting herself as a lawyer.

Becoming a lawyer is an arduous task. For four years, one has to go to school from Monday to Saturday. Then one has to study for the bar, take the bar examinations, then pray harder than a Buddhist monk for five months, or until such time the results are released.

Passing the bar exams is crucial because all lawyers must pass it to practice law — that is, legally.

In most countries, one need not earn a college degree as a sine qua non for the study of law. In the Philippines, a bachelor's degree is a pre-condition for enrolment. The numerous requirements before one becomes a lawyer bring to my mind the curious case of Michael Medado.

To all appearances, Medado had his bona fides in order, well, almost. He graduated from the University of the Philippines College of Law and passed the bar with a high grade of 82.7. He took his Attorney's Oath but failed to sign the Roll of Attorneys which is a big book where one signs his name after passing the bar. It is kept in the Office of the Bar Confidant of the Supreme Court and the number which appears beside the signature of the newly minted lawyer where he will sign his name will become his Roll of Attorneys Number.

After more than 30 years, Medado filed a petition with the Supreme Court to be allowed to sign the Roll of Attorneys. Although the Office of the Bar Confidant submitted that Medado's petition should be denied, a merciful Supreme Court allowed him to pay a fine of P32,000.00, and because he was not yet a full-fledged lawyer, he thus cannot be suspended from the practice of law. The court penalized him by not allowing him to sign the Roll of Attorneys until one year after receipt of the court's decision.

The court was lenient because during the 30 years that he practiced law, Medado proved himself to be a competent legal practitioner, holding positions in a reputable law office and various corporations dealing with energy resources and unlike some lawyers, he has never been chastised for misbehavior. Although his defense was that his acts were neither willful nor intentional and based on an honest error of judgment, his excuse was set aside because an honest mistake of fact may be used to exculpate a person from liability as it negates malice or evil malice. However, a mistake of the law cannot be used as a justification since everyone is presumed to know the law.

Let me raise the question of what constitutes the practice of law, which was answered, vaguely, by the Supreme Court in Cayetano vs. Monsod.

The case was about the qualifications of Christian Monsod to serve as chairman of the Commission on Elections. The 1987 Constitution requires the chairman to be engaged in the practice of law for at least 10 years. Did the work experience of Monsod qualify as "practice of law"?

The practice of law, said the court, means any activity, in or out of court, which requires the application of law, legal procedure, knowledge, training and experience. The court held that practicing corporate law is indeed practice of law because the lawyer takes care of the legal affairs of a corporation. Other jobs of Monsod prior to the filing of the petition and his work in negotiating loan agreements were also taken as practice of law.

In fine, said the court: "Atty. Monsod's past work experiences as a lawyer-economist, a lawyer-manager, a lawyer-entrepreneur of industry, a lawyer-negotiator of contracts, a lawyer-legislator of both the rich and the poor," is indeed practice of law.

How about teaching law? To my mind, it constitutes practice of law. If the Supreme Court in Cayetano said that a lawyer who takes care of the affairs of a corporation or negotiates debt contracts is engaged in the practice of law, then a fortiori, a person who teaches law, is in the practice of the legal profession because between a debt negotiator and a law professor, the latter has more gravitas because he is charged with the molding of young minds who will one day become lawyers.

Besides, if a person who is not a lawyer can teach law, what will he teach? What legal experiences can he convey to his students? And how can we bind him to the ethics of the profession?

As for my friend who was hoodwinked by that person masquerading as a lawyer — the last time I heard, he was still trying to get his money back.

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