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Setting the Bar High

Bar topnotcher Sean James Borja on becoming great, for himself and for the voiceless

Updated

By VIANCA GAMBOA

Portrait by NOEL PABALATE

ABOVE AND BEYOND Bar topnotcher Sean James Borja on his journey to the top

ABOVE AND BEYOND Bar top notcher Sean James Borja on his journey to the top

For years, we were led to believe there is no country for the deviants, but there is one for the great ones. When you’re from the “wrong” side of the spectrum, you can only be accepted once you become great. It can’t go both ways. Maybe this was what kept Sean James Borja going from the get-go, and it eventually became what he aims to refute.

The Atenean top notcher of the 2018 bar sat with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle to tell us about his ambitious feat despite the never-ending prejudice.

Currently, in the process of figuring things out for himself, his purpose is to represent the marginalized, to be the voice of those who have been trying to be heard for so long.

Why did you want to be a lawyer? What was your drive?

I think what I like about being a lawyer is being able to represent a voice. Before I wanted to be able to speak up for my own truth and I think I found beauty in that. And so now I want to do that, but by extension, also speak the truth of other people, when they can’t seem to do it by themselves or maybe if they need assistance.

What were your preparations? Did you exert extra effort? Was it rigorous?

Oh, yeah, it was very, very rigorous. You have no choice. If you want to be on top, you need to bring it, you can’t just say you want to be on top and then not really walk the talk. So for me, it was a rigorous exercise. I have stuck to a schedule which required me to wake up at 6 a.m. and then a little exercise until 9 a.m. where I’ll finally be able to start studying until 9 p.m. with some breaks in between—pretty much a 12-hour study routine. But that said, I always made sure na hindi lang siya puro aral (that it was not always about studying).I tried to get as much life as I could. I would make sure that I would sleep at least eight hours  day, or at least try to still talk to family and friends, and put off studying on Sundays. It wasn’t much of a life, di ba? It was still pretty lonely, even pretty dark at times. But for me, it was my dream and so despite the darkness of the entire five months, puro puso lang talaga kasi ‘yun lang ang kakapitan mo eh (it’s all heart, that’s the only thing you can hold on to).

How was the pressure? And how did you handle it? 

Well, I was valedictorian in law school so a lot of the faculty was really expecting, like “Uy, top one ka ha? Pero no pressure.” [laughs] I think the last time that someone from Ateneo topped the bar was back in 2012 so they were quite hungry for a win. How I handled it was just to tell myself, “Okay, if I want to be top one, it’s going to have to be me and me alone.” It’s only because I have to want it and not because somebody else wants it for me. And so how I came to peace with that was, “Okay, I’m going to use that as fuel but I will not let that define me or if I don’t make it to top one, I hope I won’t disappoint them because I’m doing everything I can on my end. And so I told myself that “you’re going to be top one because you’re going put your heart into it, not because somebody else told you.”

TOPNOTCHING IN LIFE Sean in his natural habitat, Gulapa Law Office Firm in Ortigas

TOPNOTCHING IN LIFE Sean in his natural habitat, Gulapa Law Office Firm in Ortigas

By what means do you aim to provide the voice ‘for those who don’t have it?’

Well, I’ve been asked this question before, and I think my top answer would be providing legal aid. Of course, it’s mandatory now for lawyers to render at least 120 hours but what I’m eyeing is beyond 120 hours. I still have work and I don’t want to get into it agad and then stumble along the way kasi hindi ako ready (because I’m not ready) so if not now, then maybe in two years, three years, I can hopefully provide that kind of aid. In law school, in my fourth year, I did that kind of work also where we had to provide free legal services to people who don’t have the means to pay for services. That experience taught me a lot about our justice system, that there are people who deserve to be represented. Sometimes, they don’t have the money for it, or sometimes, they don’t even have a single contact. That experience was really close to my heart. It is still difficult to balance everything but I do hope that someday, I can live up to what I’m seeing right now.

You’ve been very open about your sexuality now. Was this ever a hindrance in achieving your goals? Or did it pave the way for you to excel more?

It was both a hindrance and a source of fuel for me. On one hand, it was a hindrance, because there’s a lot of prejudice with the LGBT community. If you’re LGBT, you’re made to believena you can’t be someone’s partner at the law firm, you can’t be a CEO, you can’t be a president of a company, because you’re gay. You’re not good enough. You can’t be good enough. And so there was that prejudice. Pero nakapagpasya na talaga ako (but I’ve made up my mind) [laughs]. There were a lot of roadblocks to where I wanted to be. My life was really focused on hiding who I was. A lot of my energy was spent on that like if I were in a room where may nagkakalat na bakla ako (someone’s spilling rumors about me being gay), I would be so preoccupied. I’d be like “Where is this rumor coming from? I need to stop it from spreading.” Because there’s a lot of prejudice toward the gay community in our predominantly Catholic society in the Philippines, sad to say that a lot of the hate really comes from religious roots. I am a religious person. I love my God. On the other hand, it was also fuel for me, because I wanted to prove that whatever prejudice you have about the gay community, I’m going to trump that. No matter what it takes, I will do it and do it and do it. Because for me, life can’t be like this. Life can’t just be about hiding or pretending. So much energy gets spent on faking when you could use that energy somewhere else—I could use it to become great.

At one point, it became a matter of just proving everyone wrong. But at the end of the day, I was like, I’m just going to be great because it is what is demanded of me, based on what our society needs, I guess. In Ateneo, that’s what we are taught—to be somebody for others, not just for you, not just for your immediate circle, your close friends—you have to be more than that. To sum it up, at first, I thought [being gay] was a fuel to just prove everybody wrong. But eventually, it became fuel to just generally be somebody that could be great.

Were you bombarded in the internet with hate? Were you bullied, even in the workplace?

In the workplace, definitely not because this is a very accepting environment, I think, and I am very thankful for all my workmates because they’ve been so open and so accepting.I have no complaints whatsoever.

In terms of bombardment after the results came out, I think there were a lot of comments like “Ay bakla ‘yan, nagtop nga siya sa bar pero bagsak naman siya kay God (He’s gay, he topped the bar but he failed in the eyes of God),” but I didn’t feel bad. Maybe four years ago, I would have felt hurt, attacked, as if I was cornered. But when I saw the comments, I did not feel hurt. A lot of the comments came from a place of hate, a place of malice, and sad to say, as I said, a place of religion. My parents have not taught me to hate, to fear people who were different from me, or to spread evil or darkness. For me, my God is very loving and accepting and compassionate. So if that is the kind of heart that you’re showing me, the kind of God that you’re showing me, then I can just easily reject that as something that’s not mine. It was very easy to reject. Online hate no longer affects me.

Are you planning to enter politics?

Not anytime soon. I don’t have an interest in politics. Some of my batch mates do. But [entering] government service—the judiciary, or different departments of the government, or maybe even the Congress—is a different thing. Politics, for me, is medyo magulo (a bit chaotic). So I’m okay with doing work that doesn’t involve politics.

How would you encourage young people to be as passionate as you are?

I think it’s just really to find where your heart is. For example, you can’t go into law after being forced into it by your parents.

Go where your heart is leading you. But also go where you’re needed.

It’s very hard, but I hope that people try to find the intersection between where they want to go and where they need to go. It’s a very difficult thing to do sometimes that it can cause a mid-life crisis or even an existential crisis.

It takes a lot of self-reflection but doesn’t be pressured into doing something that you don’t want to do. Just really listen to your heart because it’s your best teacher.

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