Published on 20 August 2018, The Daily Tribune
I wake up early and sleep late. I attend Mass, I try to exercise also when I can. I pray every day. I hear Mass every day. I say my rosary every day. It’s what helps me keep my perspective. Not that I am announcing it, but you need to pray so that you see things from a different perspective, especially with the demands of our profession. It’s so easy to stray off course. You need to be level-headed; you need devotion to God and prayer gives you moments of reflection“For me, success is a combination of two things: prayers and hard work. My philosophy in life is I have to work as if everything depends on work, but I have to pray as if everything depends on prayer.”
Top Filipino lawyer Nilo Divina, founder and managing partner of DivinaLaw, one of the Philippines’ biggest law firms, defies gravity with a philosophy in life that puts faith before fame.
Dapper in a dark suit, Divina steps into the faculty lounge in a bit of rush, his day having already begun with a freshman tour where he is set to give a speech.
The University of Santo Tomas (UST) Dean of the Faculty of Civil Law is unflappable — he quickly answers a couple of questions, then off he goes to face a roomful of eager faces.
When he returns, he gets back to the last question that had been left hanging, then goes on to parry sometimes-prying questions with the smoothness of a true legal eagle.
Dynamic is a word that aptly describes the man — hailed this year as one of the country’s Top 100 lawyers and last year as the world’s top 500 — but it was his firm DivinaLaw’s mantra of “dynamic lawyering” that was the first to gain notice in his sphere of influence.
“Dynamic lawyering is best encapsulized by the philosophy of the Firm: that we will do everything necessary, within the bounds of reason, of course, and ethics, to deliver outstanding results to our clients and make them happy. So we innovate, we think out of the box, we explore uncharted territory. We find ways, we open doors. Client satisfaction is our burning passion,” he tells the Daily Tribune.
The concept, he adds, was uncommon when he established the firm in 2006.
“It was fairly novel because you had many law firms but they were into, and I suppose they still are, the traditional approach. Lawyers should tell you what the law is. We’ll tell you what the law is, and how we can basically use the law to suit your objectives consistent with law. We find solutions for the clients. We just don’t tell the clients what the law is, but we tell them there’s a legal and ethical way of finding solutions,” he explains.
Divina led the firm’s aggressive growth. “We started with five lawyers, and now we have 67. We only had four clients [Banco de Oro, Premium Securities, Steel Asia and Equitable Group] to hundreds now,” he says.
DivinaLaw currently has offices in Singapore and major cities of the Philippines, including Cebu, and Divina says they hope to establish other branches across the regions within a span of five years.
“At the moment we already occupy a whole floor of a building — that’s about 2,000 square meters of space. Given the growth of our firm, there may be a need to get our own building to accommodate our nonstop growth.”
Legal mind, devout heart
Aside from his work that covers “key practice areas: corporate, criminal and civil litigation; ADR; estates and trusts; immigration; labor and employment,” he also does duty as dean at the UST. In between, he makes time to nurture his body and spirit with exercise and prayer.
“I wake up early and sleep late. I attend Mass, I try to exercise also when I can,” he relates. “I pray every day. I hear Mass every day. I say my rosary every day. It’s what helps me keep my perspective. Not that I am announcing it, but you need to pray so that you see things from a different perspective, especially with the demands of our profession.
It’s so easy to stray off course. You need to be level-headed; you need devotion to God, and prayer gives you moments of reflection.”
Dynamic is a word that aptly describes the man – hailed this year as one of the country’s Top 100 lawyers and last year as the world’s Top 500.
The Pacific Star floor occupied by DivinaLaw offices, in fact, houses a chapel where Mass is celebrated daily at noon.
His faith has seen Divina through many challenges in life. Facing controversies, including the fraternity hazing issue that linked his name to the untimely death of a student in UST, for example, the law professor says, “There is no substitute for conscience. I am fortunate that I was schooled in UST, and I saw the importance of seeing things from a supernatural perspective. The challenges did not make me scared. I knew I was in the hands of God. I knew that difficulties can be diverted into opportunities. These are ways of seeing things from a supernatural perspective, that God has reasons for everything. This kind of thinking is because of UST. It taught me the right values. That’s how I kept my composure, my sanity,” he confides.
Managing to build up the firm the fastest in the industry, as well as staying on top of the game in spite of stiff competition, Dean Divina also muses, “Other than prayers and hard work, our clients have become our own marketing agents, our own ambassadors of goodwill. And because our clients belong to the top echelon, business leaders and titans, they refer us to their peers, which is why our clients are conglomerates, top corporations and high net worth individuals.”
In spite of sterling recommendations from happy clients, DivinaLaw takes its cases discriminately. “We don’t handle certain cases if they are not true to the core philosophy of the firm: there are ‘no-no’ cases for us, like drugs, gambling, controversial cases. We’re quiet, but we work efficiently, without fanfare,” Divina explains.
Dean’s list to A-list
At age 54, Dean Divina has already had a lion’s share of recognitions. A glass-covered shelf in his faculty office is filled with plaques and trophies. Asked about this, he says he knew his hard work and discipline had begun paying off when he began getting unexpected awards.
“You don’t work for an award,” he avers. “In the first place, you don’t know that you would be given such an award. These are based on feedback, consensus, comments of in-house counsels and clients,” he says of his being named in 2018 as one of the Philippines’ Top 100 lawyers by the Asia Business Law Journal.
According to its website, the Asia Business Law Journal presents its A-list of the “Top 100 lawyers (including foreign legal consultants/advisers/counsel) practising in the Philippines based on extensive research and nominations received from in-house counsel around the world, and the Philippines-focused partners at international law firms.
Divina was also distinguished for making it to the leading lawyers list released in 2017 by the InterContinental Finance & Law Magazine (ICFM) – “the sole Philippine lawyer to the make it to the list” of the Top 500 lawyers, barristers and solicitors from across the globe.
According to a report, “To be in that ICFM list is to belong to an elite of lawyers in a trade publication that also lists the very best advisors, financiers and banks across all continents while displaying global transactional activity. To be cited by ICFM is to reach out to a diverse audience, including CEOs, CFOs and mid-management decision makers in both public and private firms across all continents.”
“We are just surprised that we are there. And that shouldn’t detract from the fact that despite these awards, we should keep on working to maintain the trust of our clients,” he tells the Daily Tribune.
Divina was also named managing partner of the year for two consecutive years by the ACQ Global Awards.
Other than teach commercial law at the UST, Divina worked as the executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Equitable Bank which became Equitable PCI Bank and later became Banco de Oro (BDO). He also served as the general manager, executive adviser to the board and corporate secretary of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.
“I was hired as assistant vice president of Equitable Bank which became Equitable PCI Bank. I was 36, I think, and I was already senior vice president. At the age of 39, I was the youngest… I have gotten all those ‘youngest’ citations. At one point, I was also the youngest law dean ever appointed (at age 44 in 2009), the youngest Bar reviewer of commercial law, youngest VP, youngest… but now that I’m 54, wala na yan e,” Divina laughs.
Young achiever to ‘youngest’ achievements
Divina, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Behavioral Science, cum laude, from UST’s Faculty of Arts and Letters, was a scholar and honor student throughout his schooling.
“I didn’t have the resources. I remember when I graduated in AB, I was supposed to deliver a speech. …at that time I was staying in this part of Metro Manila that was always flooded. So I had to sleep on the table the night before my graduation,” he recalls.
Divina went on to finally take up Law at the UST Faculty of Civil Law where he edited the UST Law Review and graduated magna cum laude and class valedictorian, Bachelor of Laws.
“When I was in law school, I was the president of the student council. I only had P14 in my pocket. Being the president of the entire student council with 41 students under you, but I only P14 in my pocket… Of that I would use P9 for my fare, so basically I only had P5. So I would go to P. Noval for a banana-cue or camote-cue, sago’t gulaman merienda. It was all my money could afford. Because of this lack of resources, I became more motivated to study harder, work harder and thanks to God, I am now in the place where I am,” he shares.
Divina remains the dean of the country’s oldest law school and also teaches at the University of the Philippines College of Law.
When it comes to his work as dean at the UST, Divina was able to improve UST’s passing rate from 60 percent to 90 percent. “Last year, for the first time in UST we had five topnotchers, and the 90 percent passing was the highest here in Metro Manila. We are now third highest overall to other law schools, but they have less students,” he elaborates.
As one of UST’s former students affirms, “Dean Nilo made UST a very attractive school for taking up law, especially for those who already took their prelaw at UST. UST now performs better than supposed top schools and bringing back its former glory as producer of statesmen and academics with Christian ethics,” Atty. Nicolo Bernardo, senior legal officer (manager) of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.
One would think being founder and managing partner of such a huge operation would leave no room for anything else, but Dean Divina proves otherwise.
How did he do it, we ask Atty. Divina. “In law school, it’s a combination of having the best students, the best faculty and the best resources. You may have the best ingredients, but if you don’t have a good chef, then he cannot produce wonders. You may have a good chef, but if the ingredients are wanting, you get the same lousy result. You have to have both good chef and ingredients. For us, that meant a good faculty, good students and good resources, you know, facilities,” he said.
“We recruit the best teachers, we offer scholarships to the top students of UST. The reason other schools were getting topnotchers was because the best of our graduates were going there. I thought we should invite them here, but you don’t just tell them come and study here. We offer scholaships, housing subsidy, book allowance and other perks and benefits. So I was able to arrest the exodus. They come here, to UST. That’s the secret.”
Atty. Kathleen Piccio, former student of Dean Divina in the subject “Law on Partnership and Corporation” at the UST College of Civil Law, Batch 2010, also comments: “He is very generous to his students and associates. Teaching or mentoring is really his vocation. He wants us to thrive in the legal profession so he will do whatever he can to encourage and inspire us. As much as possible, he tries to maintain a close personal relationship with his students so they will feel that he truly cares for their growth and future.”
Man of law, man of family
The Asia Business Law Journal presents its A-list of the “Top 100 lawyers (including foreign legal consultants/advisers/counsel) practising in the Philippines based on extensive research and nominations received from in-house counsel around the world.
Six years ago, the ever-innovative lawyer thought of a way to spend quality time with each of his five sons. “It’s a good thing my kids are usually still awake by the time I arrive (from work). That’s also the reason I have weekend trips with them. We go out of the country or out of town. We have group travel – meaning with the family – and I have one-on-one travels with my sons. I travel with them individually. One thing I noticed every time we travel as a group is they all crave for my attention. They all want to talk to me. My eldest is 25, my youngest is 17. So I thought, maybe it would be better to have one-on-one travel with them. That started that way of life for me. Short trips, three to four days – three nights max. Something I would recommend to fathers because it’s a good practice — they open up to you more, you get to know them more and you become closer.”
The eldest of four children, Dean Divina had always known he would be a lawyer.
“As early as the age of six, that had been my ambition. There was no other profession for me except to be a lawyer. My Dad told me that I should be a lawyer because I love to talk, I love to discuss, I love to make kuwento, I love talking to crowds. That’s why my Dad told me, perhaps you’re meant to be a lawyer. That stuck in my mind,” he relates.
His father served as barangay chairman for over 30 years, which may account for Dean Divina’s talent for people. His mother, a dean’s lister, was clearly an influence on his studies.
“We did not have the resources during our time though my Dad in his own ways also showed us his affection. We didn’t travel, we couldn’t afford it at that time. As they say, ‘different strokes for different folks.’ My dad has his own ways of showing his affection and love for us. I have my own way of showing my love and affection to my children. I guess it’s driven by the conditions and circumstances in which we find ourselves.”