Advocacy and the Art of Small Steps

By: Sean James B. Borja

Ateneo de Manila Law School

 

Executive Summary: Resonance

 

     In the age of millennials, where choice is virtually unlimited, choosing a career path is a quarterlife crisis waiting to happen.  Luckily for me, that was not the case; as early as my junior year in high school, I was fairly set on becoming a lawyer. While I was spared the conundrum of discovering what I wanted to do in life, however, vocational certainty did not mean understanding. I relished in building my hopes and dreams and yet I had a rather rudimentary grasp of what lawyers did. My high school teachers told me that lawyers were all about fighting for justice. But what is justice? What do lawyers fight for?

     Our very own Constitution, in Section 9, Article II, dares to define what justice entails. It commands the State to “promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation, and free the people from poverty.” By and large, this constitutional mandate is designed to put the plight of the underprivileged at center stage of governmental policy and to rally the State’s awesome machinery to eliminate inequities in society.  Prosperity for all: that is the goal of social justice.

     Our Constitution recognizes that our nation’s poorest are not free. They are bound by the chains of poverty, and lack the very voice to espouse their own cause. Viewed in this light, our earlier conception of justice becomes a little bit clearer: justice is not just about giving. Justice must also be enabling. In the words of our very own Supreme Court, “Social justice does not champion division of property or equality of economic status; what it and the Constitution do guaranty are equality of opportunity, equality of political rights, equality before the law, equality between values given and received, and equitable sharing of the social and material goods on the basis of efforts exerted in their production.”[1] Justice goes beyond benevolence; it requires, instead, an interplay between prosperity and liberty. One without the other would simply not do.

     How do we go about attaining liberty? I believe we can begin by hearing out stories.

     ‘Little Prince’ Lander Solano is a 9-year-old boy who sells kesong puti to passers-by along Filmore Street, Makati. He negotiates alleys, flyovers, and underpasses every day—all in the company of thieves—just to make a living. Little Prince’s mother also sells kesong puti behind the Cash & Carry along Osmeña Highway, where the family spends the night whenever their goods remain unsold. He is currently out of school, but one day, he said, he will take up engineering and build homes, towers, and dreams.

     Little Prince’s narrative is but one of myriad stories that need to be heard. This is where, I believe, the legal profession and advocacy come in. We claim to live under the rule of law, but without the instrumentalities to bridge the gap between established rights and the underserved, the deep-seated inequalities that we have today will endure for generations to come. Thus, a discussion of Article III of the Constitution is a hifalutin, largely academic exercise unless it can be concretized and brought down to the level of the common tao. And so I believe this is the lawyer’s task: a lawyer must stand at the helm of the law and, through the strength of advocacy and the power his/her voice, turn liberty and prosperity into concrete reality.

     It has been said that the rule of law is the great equalizer and yet, without lawyers, the law is rendered fictional and out of reach, especially for those at the fringes of society. Prosperity and liberty under the rule of law: these are laudable goals but without agency to bridge them to the beneficiaries, a wide chasm will continue to isolate the underserved. And so this is the lawyer’s mission: s/he must learn the power of advocacy—learn to harness it, and become the voice that resonates when others go silent.

[1] Guido v. Rural Progress Administration, G.R. No. L-2089, October 31, 1949.


Never have our people had greater need than today for great lawyers, and for young men and women determined to be great lawyers. Great lawyers—not brilliant lawyers. A scoundrel may be, and often is, brilliant; and the greater the scoundrel, the more brilliant the lawyer. But only a good man can become a great lawyer: For only a man who understands the weaknesses of men because he has conquered them in himself; who has the courage to pursue his ideals though he knows them to be unattainable… only such a man would so command respect that he could persuade and never resort to force.

         — Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno

        For many people, choosing a career path is a quarterlife crisis waiting to happen. In the age of millennials, where choice is virtually unlimited and people are constantly looking to find and dig into their niche—to be “different” and to stand out from the crowd—“what do you want to do?” has become a sensitive topic to be broached with caution.  Luckily for me, that was not the case; as early as my junior year in high school, I was fairly set on becoming a lawyer. “An ace attorney,” I would beam with pride as I told my family and my closest friends. While I was spared the conundrum of discovering what I wanted to do in life however, vocational certainty did not mean understanding. I relished in building my hopes and dreams like towers and yet I had a rather rudimentary grasp of what lawyers did. My high school teachers told me that lawyers were all about fighting for justice. But what is justice? What do lawyers really fight for?

        Justice is gray area whose contours we can only attempt to define with precision. In broad strokes, justice is the state of fairness under prevailing factual circumstances. Justice, in its most nascent of definitions, means giving to another what is his due. As an ideal and as a virtue, it is something that we have been building towards since the birth of our nation. But what does it demand from us?

        Our very own Constitution, in Section 9, Article II, dares to define what justice entails and commands the State to “promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation, and free the people from poverty.” By and large, this constitutional mandate is designed to put the plight of the underprivileged at center stage of governmental policy and to rally the State’s awesome machinery to eliminate inequities in society.  Prosperity for all: that is the goal of social justice, as can be seen in the various efforts that have been led by government.

        Consider the following state measure.

        The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), our version of the World Bank’s Conditional Cash Transfer Program, was instituted to break the chain of poverty from one generation to the next by investing in the health and education of children from underserved families. In 2010, 800,000 beneficiary households were enrolled in the 4Ps. By 2015, however, this number would balloon to 4,400,000, with a total budget of P62.7 billion for the subsequent year.[1] In fact, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank praised the program’s success in lessening the burden of those stricken with poverty.

        The 4Ps is but one example of measures geared towards the attainment of social justice. Though the cynic would have much to say about our current array of governmental programs, the facts show that our nation has made significant gains towards the reduction of inequalities. While laudable in their purpose, however, it is equally arguable that the programs that government has spearheaded are essentially remedial, rather than comprehensive, solutions. As such, they run the danger of remaining short-term palliatives. For instance, the 4Ps addresses issues on maternal mortality and child mortality, while leaving out other vulnerable sectors, such as poor senior citizens, the chronically sick, and the out-of-school youth. Indeed, the causes of poverty are highly complex and interlocking, and cannot be addressed without real engagement of the beneficiaries—that is, an attempt to understand the contexts in which they live.

        Many of our socio-economic efforts, albeit a testament to the governmental push for poverty alleviation and prosperity, fail to consider that perhaps inequities, within the Philippine context, are merely symptomatic of an even great problem: the poor have no voice to espouse their own cause. The lack of representation is aggravated by the fact that they cannot even be bothered to do so. When you fall along the margins of society, you have little room for discourse and debate. You are given aid, and you say yes, and then go back to making ends meet. No doubt the poor man on the street may get by, but the inconvenient truth remains: pure beneficence is, more often than not, temporary, and its effects, short-lived at best. Consequently, he remains bound to the cycle of poverty. In many ways, therefore, governmental aid tends to be the balm that soothes the blistering wounds, without breaking the chains that caused them. Indeed, there is no liberty in economic assistance alone—not when it refuses to acknowledge the underlying context of those living on the margins: that they are a disenfranchised lot.

        It is not enough that we Filipinos commiserate with the plight of our underprivileged neighbors. Benevolence, without liberation, is bound to be a self-defeating cause. In this regard, our earlier conception of justice thus becomes a little bit clearer: justice is not just about giving. Justice must also be enabling. In the words of our very own Supreme Court, “Social justice does not champion division of property or equality of economic status; what it and the Constitution do guaranty are equality of opportunity, equality of political rights, equality before the law, equality between values given and received, and equitable sharing of the social and material goods on the basis of efforts exerted in their production.”[2] Justice goes beyond mere charity and requires an interplay of prosperity and liberty. One without the other would simply not do. This begs the question: how do we go about attaining liberty? Which avenues must we explore? To me, I believe we do not have to look far to find an answer.

        We can begin with hearing out stories.

        ‘Little Prince’ Lander Solano is a 9-year-old boy who sells kesong puti to passers-by along Filmore Street, Makati. He negotiates sketchy alleys, flyovers, and underpasses every day—all in the company of thieves—just to make a living. Little Prince’s mother also sells kesong puti behind the Cash & Carry along Osmeña Highway, where the family spends the night whenever their goods remain unsold. He is currently out of school, but one day, he said, he will take up engineering and build homes, towers, and dreams.

        Krizia Mae is a 15-year old girl living in the uplands of General Nakar, Quezon. She is a member of the Dumagat tribe, displaced from her ancestral home to give way to the construction of Kaliwa Dam in Quezon. She wants to become a teacher someday, but finds that the current facilities in her settlement are largely inadequate. Krizia Mae does not understand why her community had to relocate.

        The narratives of Little Prince and Krizia Mae are but two of myriad stories that need to be told to and heard by those in the core of society. Since the persons living on the margins lack the voice to pass on their narratives and to espouse their own cause, however, they require agency. This is where, I believe, the legal profession and advocacy come in. We claim to live under the rule of law, but without the instrumentalities to bridge the gap between established rights and the underserved, the deep-seated inequalities that we have today will endure for generations to come. Thus, a discussion of Article III of the Constitution is a hifalutin, largely academic exercise unless it can be concretized and brought down to the level of the common tao. And so I believe this is the lawyer’s task: a lawyer must stand at the helm of the law and, through the strength of advocacy and the power of persuasion, turn liberty and prosperity into concrete reality.

***

        When I was growing up, I developed the notion that a great lawyer is one who can speak his mind freely, compellingly, and defiantly. A lawyer is, first and foremost, an advocate—one who is called to champion another person’s cause, when the latter cannot himself do so. I was not a particularly big boy, even when I was an adolescent, and so physical strength was never my forte. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that becoming a lawyer spoke to me on many levels. Fiery oratory: it was the weapon of choice that I hoped to brandish skillfully one day.

        Childhood dreams are attractive because they tend to be ideal, while conveniently discounting realities. In my first year of law school, it dawned on me that the path of law meant serious and competitive business. Perhaps it was the professors, who relentlessly tried to catch us out of step. Or my classmates who, even in their free time, discussed their own versions of “What happened in this case?”  Or maybe it was my Type-A personality which made me feel a constant need to compete with myself. In my first year, I developed the notion that law school was all about the paper chase—the slow, grueling crawl to get the best grades possible. Law school was a context where it seemed like being statistically best was what mattered most. It was not so fascinating after all.

        The ‘bad recits’ came in frequently and academics only got harder as we advanced through the semesters. As I became more immersed in law school, however, my disposition towards learning took a gradual turn. I began to consider the possibility that, while grades are all fair and fine, perhaps they are not everything. After all, memorizing codal provisions and facts-issues-held helped me live to see another day, yet they could only do so much to advance my dreams of becoming a great advocate. It was then that I realized I still had not found what I was looking for, and so I decided that greatness probably lied elsewhere.

        As a prospective lawyer, I dream to create ripples in the lives around me. Many of us (myself included) want to create a difference in the world—to fight the good fight, so to speak—and yet, few of us ever know where to even begin. And so we end up feeling stuck in a rut, unable to map out our next move in making an impact out of our lives. As a law student, what concrete action could I have possibly taken to pull down my dreams from the clouds and turn them into a reality here on the ground?

        The answer became apparent when I began my second year of law school.  The Ateneo Society of International Law (ASIL), an organization dedicated to moot court, opened its doors to new recruits. To me, it seemed an obvious choice to learn the ropes of advocacy. While I do not regret joining ASIL, it was nevertheless difficult decision to make because active involvement meant balancing sleepless nights of studying, with equally sleepless nights of training, researching, and writing.

 

I wish I could say that advocacy came naturally and instantly to me, but mine was an uphill, Sysiphic struggle more than anything else. After all the jibber jabber and heartstrings about advocacy, one would reasonably expect that I was proficient at it. I was not.

 

I will not lie: the results from my first competition were a disappointment at best. Despite all efforts, my team failed to advance to the international round; in fact, we did not even make it past the quarterfinals during nationals. To put the nail in the coffin, I discovered post-mortem that my individual scores were absolutely dismal. After all those months of rigorous training, I ended up going home with my tail in between my legs. Needless to say, the experience was a huge blow to my self-esteem, and I considered that maybe I did not have what it takes to make it in the real world.

 

Even as all the cards were stacked against me, however, I willed myself to compete again. For if I decided to pack my bags and go home, then I would have failed not only my dreams and myself. I would have failed Little Prince, who was at Filmore Street with his kesong puti wanting nothing else but to meet his quota; I would have failed Krizia Mae who wanted nothing but to fight for her ancestors’ lands. If I broke under the pressure of not being good enough, then I would have failed the legal profession.

 

We all very much would like to be brilliant at what we do, and yet greatness is never a miracle waiting to happen at any given moment. Greatness, I found, is the art of small steps: it is in the daily struggle that we can take courage, and become better, stronger, and wittier. Trials, tribulations, setbacks, and fiascos are really just tests of character in disguise, for the fire that melts butter is the same fire that hardens steel. True enough, the sun was on my side and in my most recent competition, I prevailed as 3rd Best Speaker in Asia. I dare say (and at risk of flying my own flag), it was a good way to wrap up my first year of mooting.

 

As a law student with two years to go, I believe this is my task: to embrace the grind, and to never stop honing my craft. There is still a lot to learn. For instance, I have yet to master the delicate art of weaving together legal principles and facts to form logical, sound, and compelling arguments. I have yet to master composure and measured speech while under fire from judges because, as I learned, hostility never advances one’s ability to argue. When I finish law school, I would like to hit the ground running. At the same time, I know that it is only through resilience and relentless pursuit that I can net myself the armaments that I would need to espouse liberty and prosperity when I enter “the real world.”

 

It has been said that the rule of law is the great equalizer and yet, without lawyers, the law is rendered fictional and out of reach, especially for those at the fringes of society. Prosperity and liberty under the rule of law: these are laudable goals but without agency to bridge them to the beneficiaries, a wide chasm will continue to isolate the underserved. And so this is the lawyer’s mission: s/he must learn the power of advocacy—learn to harness it, and become the voice that resonates when others go silent.

 

 

[1] Statistics taken from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, at http://pantawid.dswd.gov.ph/ (last accessed October 13, 2016).

[2] Guido v. Rural Progress Administration, G.R. No. L-2089, October 31, 1949.