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4 Ethical Principles Every Lawyer Should Remember

Law students and lawyers alike will admit that little attention is placed on legal ethics as a course subject. If not for its 5% weight allocation in the Philippine Bar Exam, an average law student will most likely skip a legal ethics class in exchange for more library time reading annotations in, say, taxation law.

During the 15th National Convention of Lawyers held last March in Cebu City, I was intrigued when the proposal to remove Legal Ethics as an independent bar exam subject was mentioned by one of the law deans who spoke about changes to look forward to in legal education and bar administration. Ethics is planned to be integrated into each of the proposed core bar exam subjects – political law, civil law, remedial law and criminal law. It appears that the focus will be shifted to strengthening the manner by which legal ethics is taught in law schools to ensure that theoretical knowledge can be easily translated to application once a student is successfully admitted to the bar. While I’m all for the betterment of legal education in the country, I am also unsure of how the change will impact on a law student’s grasp of legal ethics.

I also recall in the same convention how Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno expressed her lack of amusement in jokes that portray lawyers as peddlers of injustice. She encouraged proactive action from lawyers to help restore public trust and respect towards the legal profession. At that point, I could not help but agree with CJ Sereno as I personally get bothered with the consistent inclusion of unethical lawyer roles in Philippine prime time television series – something that is seldom done to other prominent professions.

But whether those things also bother other lawyers my age or not, the following- to me, are the top four ethical principles no lawyer should ever forget:

1. Self-lauding is cheap. 

It’s common to meet lawyers who go public with their inflated sense of self. Time and again, however, the Supreme Court has looked down on self-laud and emphasized that “a lawyer’s best advertisement is a well-merited reputation for professional capacity and fidelity to trust based on character and conduct.” In fact, even professional calling cards are limited to the following contents – lawyer’s name, name of the law firm with which the lawyer is connected, lawyer’s address, telephone number, and special branch of law being practiced (Read: Linsangan vs. Atty. Tolentino, AC 6672, Sept. 4, 2009).

2. Intemperate language is a mark of an unworthy lawyer. 

In the same way society marks crass from class, lawyers are also judged by the language used in verbal and written argumentation.  An attorney is expected to advocate a legal position in 3 exacting standards – (a) emphatic but respectful; (b) convincing but not derogatory; and (c) illuminating but not offensive. (Read: Habawel and Medina vs. Court of Tax Appeals, G.R No. 174759, September 7, 2011)

3. Advocate with zeal but never beyond the bounds of law.

A client deserves no less than full competence, diligence and dedication from a lawyer. But when it comes to the procedural aspect, no attorney should allow himself to be controlled by the client, just like no doctor will allow a patient to determine the best medication to take.   The Supreme Court frequently reminds of two rules consistent with a lawyer’s duty to promote respect for the law and legal processes – First, to counsel or maintain only actions which appears to him/her as just; and second, to maintain only defenses which he/she believes are honestly debatable.(Read: Ong vs. Atty. Unto, AC No. 2417, February 6, 2002)

4. Never let greed get the best of you.

Filipino lawyers take pride in the years of sacrifice and intellectual ability it takes to be admitted as a member of the bar.  It just gets so frustrating to read cases (like this) where lawyers completely give up dignity and integrity for money or power. Never worth it.

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