A tale of preordained things

Zeny-Linda Saipudin Nandu

✓ Pass the Bar Exams
✓ Take the Lawyer’s Oath
✓ Sign the Roll of Attorneys

Now officially, Atty. Zeny-Linda Saipudin Nandu, SCL.

It took me more than two decades to finally check off all the items on my bucket list above. With all honesty, I entered Ateneo de Davao University College of Law in 2002, and 10 years later, I graduated in 2012. Of course, there were regrets, frustrations, setbacks, and shortcomings. If I could go back in time, I would have gotten better grades and maybe, graduated on time. But it is comforting to know that everything that happens in life is preordained by God,

“Verily, we have created all things with Qadar (Divine Preordainments of all things before their creation, as written in the Book of Decrees Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz).” -Qur’an 54:49

Life in law school wasn’t just about getting bad grades. In fact, most of my lifelong advocacy work occurred while I was in law school. Just when I was on the verge of having a mental breakdown due to my unfamiliar daily routine at law school – reading tons of books day and night in my dormitory and daily recitations in my classroom. The timing was perfect as I found a good alternative to keep me sane.

It all started when I happened to join the Ateneo de Davao Legal Advocacy Works (AdDLAW) after a schoolmate invited me to join, so I could travel to places for free. Just when I thought it was all about traveling for free, I became involved in alternative lawyering and human rights work. It was about studying law beyond the four corners of the classroom. It was about learning the human side of the law. I chose the so-called “road less traveled,” which even some lawyers are unfamiliar with. However, as none other than former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr., said:

“Alternative lawyering is to practice law fundamentally for individuals, communities, and sectors that have been historically, culturally and economically marginalized and disenfranchised. To me, it is troubling that the lawyers who advocate such worthy causes are called the alternative. An alternative is a second choice. You should be considered the mainstream, the first choice, the true and ideal lawyers. Better yet, the conscience of the legal profession.”

Together with my AdDLAW colleagues, we had this seminar, which specifically focused on advocacy for the rights of children, women, indigenous peoples and communities, farmers and fisherfolks, environmental rights, and other human rights. After spending a week immersed in Samal Island’s agricultural, fishing, and IP communities and experiencing their daily lives, I chose the Paglilingkod Bayan Pangkapatiran Foundation (PBPF) for my internship in the Alternative Law Groups (ALG), which advocates for environmental rights, because I found the other advocacies too heavy for my heart to carry.  While at PBPF, I had to attend paralegal training and court hearings in Mati, Lanuza, San Franz, and as far away as Siargao. Even in my then ‘baluktot’ Bisaya, I was struck by how such a simple lecture on paralegals to fisherfolks can empower a community, and make them aware and vigilant of their rights.

After my summer internship, some volunteer interns from Ateneo Legal Services recruited me to join them. I was overwhelmed by how my experience with AdDLAW could impact the lives of people, especially those who are less fortunate. As volunteer legal aid interns, we were assigned to draft pleadings for labor cases that were filed in courts or with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). This experience honed my skills in legal research, client interviews, and drafting pleadings. In my years at Ateneo Legal Aid, I can proudly say that we have won every case assigned to me. The most memorable of all these cases was the illegal dismissal case, and the submission of the position paper coincided with my midterm exam in labor law, where my professor was the labor arbiter who eventually decided the case. Although I failed her exam, I won the illegal dismissal case without her knowing that the position paper was drafted by me. Indeed, in life, you win some and you lose some.

I then had the opportunity to attend the first Moro Law Interns Conference as the only participant from my law school. One of the participants’ recommendations was to establish a Moro law student organization at each participating law school in Mindanao to encourage Moro students to advocate for Bangsamoro rights. Having in mind the Moro situation, and with the support of other Moro law students at Ateneo, we were able to form the Ateneo Law Student Advocates for Bangsamoro Rights (AL-SABAR). We conducted seminars, paralegal training, and relief operations in Moro communities and joined other law groups in rallies and press conferences to voice out our statement on issues affecting the Bangsamoro. I became its first elected president, and AL-SABAR was for a long time the only law school-based Moro organization in the country.

My AdDLAW and ALG experiences also paved the way for me to represent my law school as a replicate intern at the Summer Internship Program of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) in Makati. Again, I traveled to many places for free, including a week-long immersion trip to Bakun, Benguet, a month-long internship proper with the Environment Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) in Puerto Princesa, and Coron, Palawan, and an internship evaluation at Ilocos Norte and Sur. This summer was the best summer for me, I enjoyed it even more because I never thought I would be able to travel to these places, and it provided me with an opportunity to empower people. The following year, I was able to facilitate the next batch of AHRC interns in their orientation seminar in Laguna and immersion in Occidental Mindoro. Also, I was among those who were tapped by the AHRC Executive Director who also held the same position at the time with the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE), to establish the local chapter of LENTE at the Ateneo de Davao College of Law, the first in Mindanao.

I also joined the Fraternal Order of Saint Thomas More – Tau Mu Fraternity and Sigma Tau Mu Sorority and have been an active member for years, serving as an editor-in-chief of both The Messenger (the official newsletter) and The Freshmen Survival Manual, a member of the Academics Committee, and being elected Lady of the Scroll. As Tau Mu, I was also elected Vice President, and became an Acting President of the Ateneo Law Student Council.

When I decided to look for a job, my former law professor, who was also a city councilor at that time, hired me to work in her office in Sangguniang Panlungsod ng Davao (SP), where she chaired the Committee on Women and Children. I was assigned to her free legal assistance desk. Here, I was once again faced with handling women’s, children’s, and labor cases, including rape, child abuse, and VAWC cases, which were sometimes too much for me. Handling pro bono labor cases for illegally dismissed workers has always been rewarding for me, especially since we have won every labor case assigned to me. In one case I worked on, I was waiting for a public jeepney when a taxi driver suddenly stopped and asked me to get into the taxi. He happily shared that he was already driving a taxi and was able to send his son to college with the money he won in a labor case. He refused to take my fare, saying it was the only way to thank me for handling the case for free.

Although I may not have graduated on time and was active in various advocacy groups, I never took my law studies for granted as I also tried my best to excel in my studies. I also had the experience of seeing my name included in the Law Bulletin’s list of topnotchers in one of my final exams. However, as the song goes, “I did my best, but I guess my best wasn’t good enough.”

Luckily, I was still able to graduate from Ateneo de Davao, and I continue to live by the motto of being “a man (or woman) for others.” Then I realized that the long road to getting my law degree was not a waste of time because, even after failing the bar exams in 2012 and 2014, I still had an easy path to finding a job after law school. Indeed, every single thing that has ever happened in our lives is preparing us for a moment that’s meant to come.

Fast-forward to my 2023 bar journey, and there’s only one phrase to aptly describe it, “a leap of faith.” I’m not a religious person, but after not making it twice in the bar exams, and taking a break of nearly 10 years, I have been praying to The Almighty to show me signs, so I could try again, and hopefully one last time.

Miraculously, there were indeed a lot of signs. When the 2023 bar syllabus was released in early 2022, I had a dream that I found an old bar bulletin that contained simplified ways to answer the bar exams. I still remember realizing it was just a dream when two of my bar buddies asked me for a copy of this and I couldn’t find it. But the day before the last Sunday exams, I accidentally came across the 2020 handbook published online by the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS) and Rex Bookstore, and it contained almost exactly what I had seen in my dream. And I have been using the same format throughout the three-day bar exams.

Even with the hashtag #HernandoBar2023, named after 2023 Bar Chairperson Justice Ramon Paul Hernando, I took that as a sign. I changed the hashtag to #HerNanduBar2023, inserted my last name, and even wrote it in my review notes.

I also added my nickname and changed Tau Mu’s 2023 bar hashtag #Ascend to #AsZend. That was how desperate I was to look for signs. I even thought that the purple (law’s academic color) tumbler my bar buddy gave me was also a sign, and when I needed to replace the frame of my eyeglasses, purple was the only color that fit my lenses.

When I learned that our bar chair’s lucky number was 8, I decided to make my lucky number “3”. It’s true—the universe is colluding:

My birth month (March) is the 3rd month;
My age is 43, although it doesn’t look like it;
I am my parents’ 3rd child;
I have a family of 3 (with my always supportive husband, and our unica hija);
The year is 2023, and this bar was my 3rd take;
For the first time in bar exam history, the exam period was shortened to 3 days, and the bar exam results were released in almost 3 months;
When I received my notice of admission prior to the exams, my local testing center was on the 3rd floor, and my room number is 301;
When I entered the exam room on the first day, I got goosebumps when the proctor said, “You are seat number 3”;
After the bar exams, I’ve dreamed about it four times. In three of those dreams (the first, second, and fourth), there were no results of the bar exams, which I shared with family and friends. I kept my 3rd dream to myself until the bar exam results came out. In this dream, I failed again. I stick to it because many people would say that dreams are the exact opposite of reality, and that’s exactly what happened; and
Finally, at the oath and signing ceremony, I received my roll number, with the last digit being 3.

Spiritually, it was important for me to wake up at 3 a.m. (aligned with my lucky number) for the Tahajjudprayer from the start of my bar review on April 1 until the day of the bar exam results. Tahajjud is a voluntary prayer mentioned in the Qur’an and by the Prophet (peace be upon him):

And they who pass the night prostrating themselves before their Lord and standing.” (Quran, 25:64)

“The Lord descends every night to the lowest heaven when one-third of the night remains and says: ‘Who will call upon Me, that I may answer Him? Who will ask of Me, that I may give him? Who will seek My forgiveness that I may forgive him?’” (Bukhari, Muslim)

As have been told by those before me, the road to becoming an attorney was never easy. It wasn’t just a matter of looking for signs, as in my case. This experience may have been a leap of faith for me, but I know there is still no substitute for hard work and perseverance.

When I woke up at 3 a.m. during the review, I immediately started my readings after prayer. I hardly take naps or rest during the day, but I make sure to go to bed early at night, so I can easily wake up at 3 a.m. and maintain normal sleeping hours. I isolated myself from people for six months and only left the house when necessary. Furthermore, I enrolled in an online review center to stay up to date since my grueling six-month review was more focused on learning for the first time most of the coverage of the bar exams, as those were either not yet enacted, amended, revised, or part of jurisprudence when I was studying law 10 years ago.

My biggest worry was that I would hardly recall or forget what I’d been studying or reading for months because I have a short memory span and I forget quickly or forget about it completely because I have been surgically operated on twice under general anesthesia. Being the perennial crammer that I am, reading the last-minute tips from the time I entered the local testing center before 5 a.m. until the last minute when the first bell rang at 7:30 a.m. was like going through my 6-month review in a nutshell. Almost everything became fresh again in my memory.

All of this is made possible by The One Above. As the Qur’an 11:88 says, “My success is only by Allah.” Even those who accompanied me on this journey are God’s instruments to finally make my dream a reality. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a lawyer. I may not be able to name each person individually, but collectively, my parents, sisters, friends, relatives, in-laws, former teachers and professors, past and present employers, and colleagues I have worked with in a variety of fields, including advocacy groups, organizations I am affiliated with, bar lecturers and review centers, past and present house helpers, former doctors, physical therapists and faith healers, and last but not least, my husband and daughter. I am forever grateful to all of them.

Finally, I would like to thank the Almighty Allah for giving me these wonderful people, for my answered prayers, and for the abundant blessings He bestowed on me to share with others.

Looking back, it is the most triumphant moment of my life as of late and at the same time the most humbling experience by far. I do not know where my life takes me from this but one thing is for sure, my law school and bar journey before becoming an attorney taught me important lessons of selfless service, hard work, perseverance, patience, and strong faith. With these, I am forever grateful for everything that happened in my life. All praises belong to Allah. Alhamdulillah!