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‘One must be a generalist to see the big picture’

Rafael Morales of Morales & Justiniano discusses the key attributes young lawyers should have as Philippines acts to attract foreign investment

As one of seven IFLR1000 Market Leaders for the Philippines, what do you consider to be the greatest achievements of your career?

I have not been keeping tab of my achievements. But what comes to mind right now is my involvement in the restructuring of Philippine borrowers’ external debt, following the declaration of a debt moratorium by the Philippine government. My former law firm acted as counsel to the bank advisory committee that represented over 450 commercial banks and financial institutions, and I was one of the partners in charge of that project. It took a decade to restructure the debts and for the Philippines to exit the moratorium. It was satisfying for me to have helped my banking clients to achieve an acceptable debt repayment scheme and my country to re-enter the international banking and financial community.

The other achievement that crosses my mind is the publication of my book on Philippine banking law and another one on Philippine securities regulations. These publications are now being used by legal practitioners and law students.

What advice would you give to lawyers in junior positions to encourage them to work towards success?

The key to a successful legal career is focus, dedication, and prayer. Armed with these, young or junior lawyers must devote the same level of skill and attention to all legal matters, big and small alike. It is not only about producing excellent legal work with promptitude but also being able to do so without forsaking integrity. Above all, one must always seek guidance from the Almighty.


Junior lawyers must devote the same level of skill and attention to all legal matters, big and small alike


What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for young and prospective lawyers in your country?

There are actually more opportunities for a successful legal career now than before for young and prospective lawyers in the Philippines. However, it takes time and patience to complete the journey. I feel that young lawyers are in a hurry and impatient nowadays as they tend not to stay in one workplace for a long time.

What does your firm do to nurture and promote talent? Do you think it compares well to others in your market in this area?

Our lawyers are normally exposed to the different areas of practice. While specialisation is unavoidable, one must be a generalist to see the big picture. Our lawyers are well trained and among the best in the market.

If you could introduce one policy across the entire legal profession what would it be?

I would like the Supreme Court of the Philippines, as the regulator of the legal profession, to recast or rewrite the Code of Professional Responsibility so that it focused equally on trial/litigation lawyers and corporate lawyers.

Are there any initiatives in the firm to help your clients deal with the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic?

As in other firms, our lawyers conduct online conferences with clients to practise social distancing but keep contact while working from home. This is really not an initiative on our part. We are just observing protocols laid down by the authorities.

Market trends

Given the current conditions in the Philippines what would you consider to be the market outlook over the coming year?

Next year will still be challenging to law firms in general, but hopefully the situation will be more manageable as the pandemic will subside as vaccines are deployed in the country as elsewhere


I would like the Supreme Court of the Philippines, as the regulator of the legal profession, to recast or rewrite the Code of Professional Responsibility so that it focused equally on trial/litigation lawyers and corporate lawyers


What kind of work do you expect will keep you busy over the next 12 months?

With the implementation of the new Islamic Banking Law, we are expecting the establishment of Islamic banks and the opening of Islamic windows in conventional banks in the Philippines. There will be Shariah-compliant banking and finance transactions, along with conventional ones. This will be exciting. Of course, we expect traditional work (like M&A, loans, etc.) to continue. Fintech work referrals will rise, largely driven by banking and other commercial transactions being increasingly conducted online due to the pandemic. Trades via live-streaming will be expected as the country adopts and shifts to 5G technology.

Are there any upcoming regulatory changes or initiatives that investors should be aware of?

There are bills in Congress that seek to reclassify certain enterprises so that they are no longer defined as ‘public utilities’. This would enable foreign nationals to own 100% (not just 40%) of the equity of those enterprises. The move forms part of the growing initiative to reduce nationality restrictions in order to attract more foreign direct investment into the country.

What is the one thing you think the IFLR’s international audience should know about how to successfully do business in your market?

The Philippines has been making great strides in attracting foreign investment. As noted earlier, nationality restrictions are gradually being reduced, if not eliminated. Dovetailing this is the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act of 2018 which aims to facilitate the entry of foreign investors in the country. Of course, good legal advice is necessary to successfully do business in the Philippine market.

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