WHEN Carla Santamaria entered law school in 1991, she had little more than her father’s prodding and her BS Mathematics major in Actuarial Science degree to start with.

In 1994, after Benigno Par, Jr. committed himself to outdo his academic performance when he was taking up BS Accountancy, he got his first-ever failed grade in one minor first-year law subject.

The following year, Prudence Angelita Kasala, a government employee and single mother, decided to further complicate her life by doing the unconventional: starting out as a law student with Management Engineering as her background.

Nevertheless, it turned out that no serious setback, no obstacle whatsoever, could hinder Santamaria, Par, and Kasala. Four years after first enrolling at the UST Faculty of Civil Law, Santamaria and Par figured prominently in the 1995 and 1998 Bar exams, respectively. Santamaria ranked fifth with 87.05 percent and Par placed fourth with 90.75 percent in their respective licensure examinations. Meanwhile, after five years as a working student, Kasala landed eighth with 88.15 percent in the 2000 Bar exams.

Judgment day

Would anybody believe that fifth-placer Santamaria got a 74 in Political Law? Worse, while taking the exam, she was already convinced that her score in that subject would fall below the 50-percent minimum, which merits an automatic disqualification,

“It was the first exam of Day One. The first question caught me off guard. I did not like it, actually. It was asking us to compare a provision in the 1935,1973, 1987 Constitutions. I never liked those kinds of questions. So I skipped it. That made me nervous. When I saw the second question, I felt that I couldn’t answer it also. For 15 minutes I was just staring at the questionnaire,” she recounted.

When the exam in Labor Law began in the afternoon of that same day, Santamaria “just went on auto-pilot.” She felt so detached from the task at hand that she did not put much effort in answering anymore. “Surprisingly, my grade in Labor Law turned out to be one of my highest in the Bar,” she said.

Political Law also nearly did Par in. “In fact, many of us thought of not taking the other exams anymore because we were dismayed at the Political Law exams,” he recalled. “But for me, I had to go on. The second exam that afternoon, Labor Law, was much easier, so I felt more confident.”

For Kasala, the tough nut to crack was Remedial Law. “My favorite in law school was Remedial Law. Unfortunately, the Bar questions in that subject for my batch deviated from the past types, so I found Civil Law, Mercantile Law, and Political Law easier.”

It was March 26, 1996, and Santamaria was already working for the Sycip Salazar law firm, when judgment day came. Driving to the Supreme Court with her best friend, she was met there by a classmate, who gave her the thumbs-up sign. The list of the Top 10 was not yet out during that time. “And then I don’t know what happened, but my best friend had to pass by the Supreme Court again, so we did. By that time, the Top 10 list was already posted. I saw my classmates, and they told me I was number five. When I saw my name, I couldn’t believe it, I think I hugged everybody,” she narrated.

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Par’s big day was April 7, 1999, but he was far from Manila when the news broke out. “I was then in the province with my family because my mother just died on March 12. In our far-flung barangay in the small town of Villaverde, Nueva Vizcaya, there were no newspapers from Manila. But my dad usually had with him a portable transistor radio. At around 5 a.m., my father heard my name announced in DZRH.”

Par later went to his mother’s grave, and while traveling on a motorcycle, he met people who congratulated him on the road. He then went to the town of Solano, where the newspapers were, and finally confirmed it: he was number four. “I learned that there were some radio stations and newspapers calling up at home and at UST wanting to interview me, but I had to attend to my mother’s 40-day rites,” he added.

Verdict on Kasala’s Bar exams came out one hot May afternoon. “I was playing tennis when a friend working at the Court of Appeals called, telling me that I placed eighth based on the advanced copy. There were already several missed calls then, but many people still kept on calling,” Kasala related.

Father knows best

None of the three topnotchers had seriously intended to take up law in the beginning. Only their fathers persuaded them to.

Santamaria’s father, Judge Cesar D. Santamaria, influenced her to go to law school. “In fact it was his idea. If he could have his way, he would want all his children to become lawyers. But it does not mean that I was just forced to become a lawyer. I later realized that I really had the aptitude for lawyering, only I did not become aware of it until after I entered law school.”

Similarly, Kasala’s father, Benjamin, is also a lawyer. And if she had not paid attention to his urgings, she would have taken up BS Mathematics or BS Statistics and honed her mathematical skills. But because she was the only one left to fulfill her parents’ dream of having a lawyer for a child, she compromised and took up a math-oriented course that could also serve as a satisfactory pre-law course, Management Engineering. Later, she herself fell in love with the law course.

Meanwhile, Par’s first desire was to study Medical Technology like his brother and sister who later proceeded to Medicine, but his father urged him to study Accountancy. “I said I would, if he’d buy me a computer. And he did,” Par recalled. “Later on, when I was already working as an accountant, he used a different approach to convince me to take up law. Iba ang psy-war niya, ang sabi niya nakukunsensya siya dahil ‘di ako nakapag-Medicine dahil wala kaming pera. So bigyan ko raw siya ng pagkakataong pag-aralin ako ng Law. And so I decided to study again.”

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Moreover, Par’s former colleagues influenced him. “When I started as an auditor at Punongbayan and Araullo, there were CPA-lawyers there who became my inspiration,” he said.

And true enough, being a Certified Public Accountant not only gave Par a background in Commercial Law. It provided him a firm foundation in Tax Law—the perennial Waterloo of barristers. “I had an advantage over others. Considering that Taxation is still the hardest subject in law school as well as in the Bar exam, I had an edge over those who did not take up Accounting. In fact, my grade in the Bar examination for Taxation is 99 percent,” he proudly declared.

On the other hand, the pre-law courses of Santamaria and Kasala did not wholly work to their disadvantage. Studying math applications taught them logic and precision, both of which were useful to them in law school. “You acquire the discipline in mathematics. You learn to follow the rules as embodied in the formulas,” Santamaria explained.

Life, love, and law

Amid all the pressures, life in law school was not always about books. Despite the long hours spent memorizing lengthy legal provisions and analyzing cases, the future topnotchers made sure they still maintained healthy relationships.

Kasala’s greatest motivation was to be able to build a life for herself and her adolescent daughter. Even if it meant getting very little sleep, she always made sure that she would somehow spend time with her child. “I went to the office 7 to 7:30 a.m., I left at 4 p.m. Then I went to school, and would often come home around 10 p.m. Usually, Tata would still be awake, waiting for me.” Then Kasala would tutor her daughter and attend to the latter’s needs before she could study law until the wee morning hours.

Meanwhile, romance found its way into the busy schedules of the two other topnotchers even while they were studying. Carla Santamaria met her husband, Prosecutor Edmund Seña, in law school. They now have a three-year-old daughter, Francesca Elaine.

Santamaria is happy with her family life. “My husband is very understanding. He’s even more driven for me than I am. He’s secure with himself and is not intimidated by my so-called successes. And as for my daughter, I always prioritize her. I would want to be a good mother above anything else,” she stressed.

Similarly, Benigno Par, Jr. found a lifetime partner in the person of his classmate, Aurora Remedios Guloy. “At that time, I was a fourth-year law student. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I’d be in the library studying. At siya, ganun din, from 8 a.m. andun din siya sa library. I had no choice but to talk to her whenever I needed cases or notes. Na-develop na rin, so she became my girlfriend during our fourth year. We got married in 2001,” Par narrated.

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‘Free legal advice’

Atty. Par is a senior associate at the Jimenez Gonzales law firm, while Atty. Santamaria-Seña has been promoted to junior partner at the Siguion Reyna law firm, the same firm where 2002 Bar first-placer Arlene Maneja is employed. Moreover, both lawyers teach at the UST Faculty of Civil Law, as a way of expressing their loyalty to their alma mater.

As teachers of law, the two Bar topnotchers agree that the surest formula to pass or even top the Bar exams is to shun procrastination. “The preparation really begins in law school,” Santamaria stressed. “You do not prepare for the Bar during the six months you are reviewing. That’s suicide. Preparation comes earlier on, during the time that you are taking the four-year course.”

For Par, it was sheer interest in the subject matter that sustained him. “When I read cases—talagang nangyayari ‘yan in everyday life—I learned of things experienced by other people. That’s why I enjoyed reading the cases in their original form, not just in digested form. And it helped,” he said.

Par prescribes his time-tested method to law students and Bar reviewees alike. “Read the provision of the law and read the cases. I’ve learned this from a professor who’s also a former topnotcher, Atty. Rene Gorospe (who placed second in the 1979 Bar exams).”

Santamaria agrees. “I did that myself. I read the cases in their entirety and this gave me a deeper understanding of the law. It taught me that, really, the law, in its pure form and if it’s applied as intended, would equalize things for everybody.”

Meanwhile, Kasala, who now works at the Quisumbing Torres law firm, sets the standard for aspiring Thomasian lawyers. “A good lawyer has to know his laws, he must also be updated with his laws. He must know how to correctly apply them. Above all, he must be ethical, he must have his own principles, and not be corrupted by the system.”

Character and ethics, in addition to diligence and competence, are precisely what make up a good Thomasian lawyer, the three topnotchers believe. This is why they entrusted their legal education to UST. And this is why they expect a lot from Thomasian law students and Bar reviewees.

“As a teacher, the most rewarding thing for me is to see good students live up to their full potential,” Santamaria said. “I have always believed our students have what it takes to excel in the Bar exams. They only have to believe in themselves. And of course, no matter what, they should always be proud of their Thomasian roots.”

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