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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | The legal aid life

“Mag PAO na lang ako” is something I sometimes hear in court which always riles me up such that, when I’m in a not so good mood, I would usually call the person’s attention by saying, in hard, if not angry, tone “Huwag mong Ni-LA LANG ang PAO, magagaling at dedicated na mga abogado yan”.

The fact is that legal aid lawyers, those from the Public Attorneys’ Office foremost among them, are among the most underappreciated professionals in the judicial system.

The PAO lawyers handle all sorts of cases from criminal defense, civil cases and family law cases to administrative cases ranging from labor to DENR cases plus they do litigation work on a daily basis, not to mention the time spent for giving legal advise to the daily influx of clients. I just recently learned that they are even required to regularly visit the City Jail and even the police stations around the city.

I always tell my students that when, and if, BIG IF BY THE WAY, they become lawyers, getting into the PAO should be a priority because working for this office for a year is like three (3) to five (5) years’ worth of legal experience when compared to working for a big law firm. I warn them though that it is not for the faint of heart because it is really a sink or swim situation where one can easily drown in the volume of the work that needs to be done and, of course, the pay is certainly not commensurate for the extent of the required work.

It truly takes a special kind of dedication to public service and a real heart for those who have less in life to persevere in the legal aid life, in the PAO, as well as in the other legal aid offices like the IBP legal aid and the legal aid services of the different law schools. To borrow from the Ateneo credo, they are true men and women for others.

There are, of course, many private practitioners who also accept legal aid cases. I have been doing so for my entire legal career and it has been a policy in our law firm, as established by my father, not to refuse court appointments as de officio counsels. The fact, however, is that what we do, in comparison to full time legal aid lawyers, will truly pale in comparison.

On the up side, however, the kind of spiritual satisfaction that one can get from doing legal aid work is simply priceless. For one reason or another, receiving some “ATTORNEY’S FISH” given in such grateful appreciation by a fisherman client is far more satisfying and fulfilling than actual fees from someone who can easily afford it. I don’t mean that I do not appreciate being well-paid by my regular clients, I certainly do.

However, what I mean is that, even without the fish, the thanks given by a legal aid client that truly comes from the heart and seeing the joy and happiness in their eyes from the impact that your service has had in their lives goes a long way in fueling your desire to do more.

I remember having once hesitatingly accepted an “ATTORNEY’S GOAT” that a client brought all the way from his place in the mountains to our third floor office and I simply did not know what to do with it. However, he was so emphatic that this was all he had to thank me with and,, despite my protestations, I finally realized that not to accept it would have been insulting. So, after he left, I made the court security guards happy because I gave it to them plus some cash for “rekado” and they had delicious kaldereta for dinner, my kind of paying it forward. Sad for the goat.

I can only imagine the fulfillment that our full time legal aid lawyers get from doing this day in and day out. I know that it would only be human for them to get overwhelmed or even frustrated once in a while but the thing is that, despite this, they still persevere. Truly, they are simply not appreciated enough for the dedicated service that they give.

As an aside, it is because of this, because of the fact that true legal aid service must come from the heart that I have always been against mandatory legal aid service. In fact, when I was a member of the IBP Board of Governors and the Community Legal Aid Service (CLAS) program, which required mandatory legal aid work from new lawyers, was being discussed, I made it clear that I was against it because forcing someone to do legal aid work will likely just result to half-hearted lip service. Enthusiastic and vigorous legal aid service can only come from one who volunteers for it because he, or she, wants to do it.

Going back to my main point, I thought of writing this article because, in my small way, I want to express my personal thanks, appreciation and great admiration for our full time legal aid lawyers, particularly for the dedicated lawyers of the Public Attorneys’ Office and it shall be my fervent hope that, someday, I will hear a client in court express this by proudly shouting “PAO YATA ANG ABOGADO KO!!!”


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