The new lawyer for an integrated Asean

LAST WEEK, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Law Association’s General Assembly had ASEAN integration as a main focus of the discussions. At the event, Senate President Franklin Drilon threw out the following query: “As the integration calls for a free exchange of resources, we must ask ourselves: what does integration mean to the legal profession? What is its impact to the practice of law? In this era of integration, the ASEAN lawyer must learn to navigate multiple legal jurisdictions.”

Posted on March 05, 2015 09:23:00 PM

Indeed. And many have tried to address this evolving world, some suggesting liberalizing the legal profession (as Senator Drilon does). Others believe in making legal education “internationalized.” And some would have it specialized technically. With due respect, I believe such ideas miss the point.

First off, liberalization of the legal profession, of having a regulatory framework allowing foreign lawyers license to appear before local tribunals, is a pipe dream. Most national Bar associations will pay lip service to the idea but privately reject it. Frankly, nobody really sees the point of having a foreigner appear as counsel for a local court case. Clients won’t either.

But, the ironic thing is that lawyers have been “practicing” law in other countries for years.

This is true for many lawyers from any country: due to developments in international law and technology, law practice has long gone cross-border. Usually calling themselves “consultants,” they work in other countries giving advice or opinions on tax, customs, trade and international law issues to multinational corporations and international organizations. Foreign (including Filipino) lawyers have also risen as top executives in the Asian corporate world. All this without needing a law license from other countries.

The fact is, lawyers have outgrown courtrooms.

A study carried out by Reed Smith and KPMG finds top global corporations increasingly looking to the legal profession to fill senior management roles. Indeed, “CEOs with a legal background are currently represented on the boards of a broad range of industries including aerospace, pharma, publishing, retail, and oil and gas.”

The number of companies headed (or recently headed) by lawyers is perhaps reflective of the increasingly responsible and ethical modern business environment. A mere cursory list will include: Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Cisco, Toys ’R’ Us, Nokia, Home Depot, Burger King, Pfizer, Fannie Mae, Delta Airlines, among others. Locally, there’s GMA-7.

Just in the recent past, the world’s top economic institutions were all headed not by economists or bankers but by lawyers: Pascal Lamy (World Trade Organization), Robert Zoellick (World Bank), Christine Laggard (International Monetary Fund). Former US treasury secretaries (the equivalent of our finance secretary) were both lawyers: James Baker III and Robert Rubin.

University of Asia and the Pacific’s (UA&P) School of Law and Governance has been ahead of the curve in this regard, foreseeing the need to develop lawyers with the skill sets and intellectual flexibility that enable them to work in courtrooms or boardrooms, in and out of the country.

Furthermore, UA&P’s School of Law and Governance has “governance” in its name for a reason. Borrowing from Columbia Law School’s Dean David Schizer (in a Financial Times interview in 2013): “Lawyers play a critical role in policy, particularly when it comes to shaping the rules that govern business practices.”

And more significantly, Dean Schizer points out: “You want the people who run the organization to think like lawyers; and you want the lawyers to think like people who run the organization.” This, he argues, “should inform how the law is taught because graduates often end up not as practicing lawyers but running businesses.”

Hence UA&P’s brand of legal education. US Justice Felix Frankfurter once said: “No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man.” The point is a liberal arts-oriented legal education. Doubtless one must pass the Bar exams and one should indeed prepare for it. But a law career goes beyond the Bar.

And unbeknownst to many is that a liberal arts education actually better prepares a lawyer in understanding international law, and navigating the nuances of the interplay between international law and domestic law.

Of course, legal education must seek to foster analytical skills, writing, persuasion, and sound ethical and technical judgment. But this is basic.

In today’s world of economic integration and easy access across countries, a lawyer must also have finely tuned collaborative skills, which not merely means the ability to work within teams but the capacity to work with other professional disciplines. Add too financial literacy and management skills (planning, organizing and utilizing resources), as well as culture sensitivity.

Ultimately, a lawyer must have the capacity to confront issues not merely from the black-and-white legalities but also from the perspective of the corporation or organization (or community) he is a part of.

Legal education simply cannot stop at mere technical training in law. The world (and the profession itself) has become much too complicated for that.


Jemy Gatdula specializes in international economic law (WTO and ASEAN), and teaches international law and legal philosophy at the UA&P School of Law and Governance.

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