News that the Philippines’ foremost human rights lawyer Atty. Romeo Capulong has passed away popped on my Facebook ticker. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was shocked.

Capulong was the reason I decided to enroll in law school. To me, he was the saving grace of the Philippine legal profession. Now he’s gone.

Suddenly, the legal profession seemed to me more indefensible. And the poor suddenly more defense-less.

Defender of the poor, exponent of public interest lawyering in the Philippines Atty. Romeo T. Capulong dies at 77. He represented, among others, the victims of the Marcos dictatorship. He was also a member of the United Nations’ International Criminal Court.

I went to law school a few years ago and tried unsuccessfully to survive. Before law school, I was a paralegal and did human rights documentation of Moro human rights victims particularly those falsely accused as “terrorists”. My reasons for leaving were more related to  the psychological toll of law school than its intellectual one. I knew how intolerable law school and the legal profession in general was, but the likes of peoples’ lawyers like Atty. Capulong and Atty. Frederico Gapuz of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (who also died earlier this year, also at 77 years old), provided inspiration and willpower to try to overcome my resistance to study (work within) a legal system I knew to be structured to serve the interests of the few, and sexist, to boot. I reminded myself, “Be like Capulong someday.”   Obviously, inspiration wasn’t enough to keep me in law school.

I had since left and instead pursued my MA from the University of the Philippines, which I successfully obtained this year. But the passing of such great lawyers as Capulong and  Gapuz and the thinning down of selfless and dedicated people’s lawyers make me go back to the lingering question my friends ask me and even I ask myself every time ordinary people and women do not get affordable, sufficient and competent legal services:

“Yang, can you not go back to law school and try to become a lawyer?”

Well, uh – probably not. But I am sure that there are young people currently in law school and who are on their way to getting their law degrees who will try their damnedest to become as earnest a human rights defender as Atty. Capulong was. There will be many who will dare to practice the credo that Capulong had personified all throughout his career as a lawyer:

“Those who have less in life, should have more in law.”

For it is in Capulong’s career that the bravest and most relevant lawyering is exemplified. So to would-be lawyers, be a Capulong. Make law work for the poor. Be a lawyer for the poor and the downtrodden!

Farewell, Atty. Capulong. Magpadayon kami hangtod sa kalampusan!

Articles on Atty. Romeo Capulong:

Romeo ‘Ka Romy’ Capulong called a rare gem – Philippine Daily Inquirer

‘People’s lawyer’ by faith – Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism