University of San Carlos bar topnotchers share winning formula

The year 2016 was a great year of triumph for Cebu’s top academic institution, the University of San Carlos. All 68 examinees successfully passed the bar exams, with four Carolinians emerging as topnotchers, the same period that Manila-based schools did not make the elite ranking.

A 59.06 percent passing rate, considered the highest passing percentage in the history of bar exams, was achieved in 2016.

University of San Carlos College of Law Dean Joan Largo (left) with 2016 bar topnotchers Karen Mae Calam (1st place), Fiona Cristy Lao (3rd place) and Anne Margaret Momongan (7th place).
Setting new records and being able to produce topnotchers in the bar exams is but one of the many important milestones that reinforced USC’s status as a top-performing law school. Among these impressive feats is winning the world title in the 20th SEARR-Stetson International Environmental Moot Court Competition – the first Asian school to get the recognition; the Best New Team award in the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, the oldest and largest moot court competition in the world; and the Championship plum in the Asia Pacific Regional Round of the Price Media Law Moot Court competition, with the USC students named as sixth best oralists in the world by Oxford University in England.   

Encouraged by the stellar performance of USC students, College of Law Dean Joan Largo commended the supportive efforts of the entire Carolinian community.

“I am proud of the important work of our faculty, students and alumni. Our unified community spirit and university pride are at their highest. It has always been an interplay of the quality of learning and research in the college, as well as the unrelenting drive for excellence to be pursued by all, in an atmosphere that feels like home, then it doesn’t feel stressful,” she said.

Enhanced learning outcomes

Apart from collective contributions, also central to USC’s brand of quality legal education is investing in the latest, most comprehensive educational materials. According to Largo, USC has acquired new learning aids, in particular textbooks in full preparation for the bar examinations.

The topnotchers recommend books from Rex Bookstore, such as Dean Willard Riano’s Remedial Law Bar Lecture Series, which includes “Civil Procedure” Vols. I and II, “Criminal Procedure”, and “Evidence”; Dean Alex Monterclar’s “Compendium on the Law on Persons and Family Relations” and Dean Mel Sta. Maria’s “Persons and Family Relations Law.”

This move, she said, was done to facilitate maximum student learning as they navigate through law school and to cultivate the inquiring minds of law students by injecting “fresh” perspectives – for them to gain better appreciation and understanding of their legal education.

“While we have been amply preparing our students since Day 1, we find it especially important to purchase the latest learning toolkits, like textbooks. Of course the printed copies are always provided by Rex Bookstore, and we thank them for making these books available to us. In the past, we would have problems getting hold of those materials because sometimes we would have them when the semester has already started or halfway through but the past years, we have seen some changes, we were able to get hold of the materials way ahead of time, which is very important.  Another thing is that we have ventured into digital format so a lot of our materials can be sourced online by our students,” Largo said. 

In taking the law students through each step of their journey, Rex Bookstore has been an active partner and supporter of USC’s ongoing purpose and advocacy on quality education. As the leading publisher of textbooks and educational materials, Rex remains at the forefront of reforming the country’s educational landscape, recognizing and providing the crucial learning needs of 21st century learners.

Rex Bookstore has a network of 24 stand-alone branches and two showrooms to serve clients’ requirements nationwide. It has published over 8,000 titles from pre-elementary, elementary, secondary, tertiary and post collegiate including law titles. 

Dream big, aim high

Bar top-passers Karen Mae Calam, Fiona Cristy Lao, and Anne Margaret Momongan may have prepared for the 2016 exams using different reviewing styles, but they ultimately share similar denominators for success – hard work, focus, prayers and reliable learning materials.  

While topping the exams gave a big head-start and indeed opened up a world of opportunities, Calam counts being able to practice the profession that you are passionate as the most fulfilling perk. Calam, who scored 89.05, has dreamt of becoming a CPA lawyer since she was six years old. 

“Though I still don’t know what a CPA is or what a lawyer does then, I was greatly influenced by my Mom, as well as friends and officemates who encouraged me to take up law. I was already working at SGV, but I’m determined to finish law school in four years,” she said.       

During her bar review, Calam attributed consistency as a vital factor in her success.

“When people ask me ‘how did you do it?’ I simply reply, ‘I just trusted in myself, in my abilities.’ I don’t think there’s something special with me, or the way I do things, but maybe because I was just consistent, I genuinely love what I do. I wasn’t really preparing to top the bar exams. Of course there are sacrifices made. I studied well, but then I still kept my balance; I don’t overthink. That despite setbacks and challenges, I continued on. I rose above them. I just enjoyed the ride, the entire process,” she said. 

Following in the footsteps of her grandfather who is a former litigator and politician, Lao bears immense pride in forging her own path as a lawyer at the Office of the Ombudsman in Cebu.  But her success story is not without a challenge, as Lao suffered an academic setback when she got a failing grade midway of her studies.       

“It was hard as I was used to doing well on things; I was an achiever and a consistent dean’s lister. But looking back, the good thing about my failure is that it really gave me an opportunity to re-examine myself where I went wrong. It gave me the ample time to review, because I was supposed to take the 2015 bar,” she said.

With persistence and keeping her faith in God’s plan, Lao’s hard-earned achievement came at a most perfect moment.

“I remembered when I received the news about being one of the topnotchers in the 2016 bar exams, a friend told me, ‘Fiona, now I know why you did not graduate with your original batch and why you were not able to take the bar examinations in 2015. Because the third spot was destined for you.’ It’s then that I realized that everything happens for a reason, that God’s plan is indeed greater than mine,” she recalls.

Just like Calam, being a lawyer was a childhood dream for Momongan, who is also a CPA and who ranked seventh in last year’s bar. She recalled her first year in law school as “baptism of fire” as she had a terror professor then.

“I’m just so thankful that I came to know that he likes the book of Sta. Maria for Persons and Family Relations. I liked that book very much because it is updated and I liked how Atty. Sta. Maria presents it. So come bar review, I still referred to his book,” Momongan said.

“We are one with Rex Bookstore in this advocacy. From our end, it’s made front and center in the discussions with our students that is legally and morally wrong to infringe upon the IP rights of authors, that’s one. Apart from an orientation, USC offers a separate subject in that one for our students’ awareness. As reinforcement mechanism, our librarian has been successful in this regard. Our students themselves have a strong sense of ownership of the book. It’s important to them as they find fulfillment in knowing that the books are not procured illegally,” said Dean Largo. 


Topics: University of San Carlos
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