by Atty. Joel Arzaga

This year’s final installment of the Universitas Lawyers’ Quarterly (ULQ) last October 25, 2019 was graced by one of the most renowned lawyers in the Philippines, Dean Nilo T. Divina. A respected law practitioner and expert in commercial law, he is the managing partner of one of the fastest growing law firms today. He is also the beloved  law dean of the University of Santo Tomas, a law professor, author, sought-after bar reviewer, and mentor to many bright young lawyers in the country. A true inspiration and embodiment of character, competence, and conscience, the eagerness and excitement of the lawyers and law students who filled the V headquarters that evening was palpable.

Initially asked to speak about the Ten Principles Of A Successful Law Practice, the humble and unassuming law dean deemed it best to instead share nuggets of wisdom on the Ten Principles In Managing A Law Firm.

Dean Divina began by recounting the leap of faith he had to take in starting his own law firm. Although armed with a stellar career as executive vice president of a prestigious bank, he still had to begin with almost nothing in his endeavor to set up his own law firm. All he had was his faith, the unwavering commitment of like-minded lawyers, and his reputation for excellent lawyering.

Soon, however, Dean Divina had to contend with the realities of starting from scratch. He had to decide on a good office location, hire associates, and most importantly, get clients. But due to the esteem he acquired from years of exceptional corporate law practice, the clients simply poured in. He shortly found his firm handling at least 80 cases for one conglomerate, needing to hire more associates, being financially secure for the next five years, and rapidly developing name recall.

It is in the context of the firm’s success at its incipience that Dean Divina shared his first advice: adhering to a basic credo that the client is always right and he is only wrong when he is no longer your client.

The Dean spoke passionately about this essential principle to make the problems and challenges of the clients as one’s own, and to put a premium on client satisfaction. It is what the client wants that must be pursued, without, of course, compromising values and losing one’s peace.

Closely related to the first advice, is the next principle which is the readiness to adjust depending on the client’s inclination. The strategies and courses of action to be taken to achieve the legal remedy or outcome desired must be according to the client’s pace and disposition. While the pursuit for the client’s cause has to be relentless, it must also be responsive to the client’s best interest.

This brand of law practice enables a firm to build and maintain the reputation of getting things done: Dean Divina’s next principle. Such stature is attained through legal service conscientiously rendered to the client’s content, without flamboyance or any pomp and circumstance.

In order to preserve such high-caliber practice of law, Dean Divina’s next principle of surrounding yourself with the best talent your resources can afford, becomes imperative. He was forthright in requiring that associates in his firm not only be proficient in the intricacies of the law evidenced by topping the bar, graduating with honors, or being published in a law journal, but must also share their fervor for a top-tier legal advocacy. Dean Divina delightedly shared that the exacting standards in their firm are compensated commensurately, as their associates are considered the highest paid in the country.

Atty. Divina delivers his first principle: the client is always right and he is only wrong when he is no longer your client.

However, for a profession susceptible to errors, inadvertent or otherwise, there are inevitable mishaps in managing a law firm or in the course of one’s law practice. Dean Divina stressed the principle of learning from your mistakes and the need to rise every time you fall as indispensable in this regard. In giving life to this principle, he relayed how errant lawyers in their firm are given ample opportunity to correct their mistakes, and if beyond repair, the necessary provisions for starting anew, albeit elsewhere, are supplied.

Dean Divina also emphasized the need to reserve funds for contingencies, as it would enable a law firm to take greater risks and have leverage to say “no” to certain cases and clients that are not in line with the trajectory a firm intends to embark.

Speaking more candidly, Dean Divina shared that in his daily life, he tries to abide by the simple principle, and hence recommends, to try to make everyone happy. He explained how each encounter with a person, no matter the state in life, lies an opportunity to be generous, kind, and charitable. Such attitude is in harmony with another principle that everyone is a potential client. Thus, one must strive to be beyond reproach in dealing with all persons, and must attempt to seize the chance to sow joy wherever one may be.

Lastly, Dean Divina shared the secret to his success, and admonished everyone present, to pray because prayer always works. A man of deep faith and unmatched piety, Dean Divina always finds time for prayer despite his busy schedule. He refers all of his problems to God, big or small. From praying for a TRO to be issued by a court, to praying for his students’ success in the bar examinations, Dean Divina leaves everything to divine and unending grace.

To end the evening that was filled with bursts of laughter, sparks of inspiration, and an outpour of wisdom, Dean Divina urged everyone to dream big. In the same way that a clear vision, a leap of faith, and an abundance of love put in his work brought him to such heights of success, he guaranteed that the same would hold true for anyone who dares to dream.

Dean Divina’s principles led him to great and admirable accomplishments worthy of emulation, but it is who he has become that is the dream worth aspiring for.

NOTA BENE: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and the speakers mentioned in the article, and not necessarily to the Foundation.

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