Firmly on top | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Managing Partner Bienvenido Somera Jr. (Inquirer Photo/Alanah Torralba)
(Inquirer Photo/Raffy Lerma)

Wherever you look, the view from the penthouse of the CVCLaw Center is simply breathtaking. Strategically located in the bustling Bonifacio Triangle in nascent Taguig City, the CVCLaw Center is a gleaming glass and stone tower rising over an urban setting. It doesn’t just dominate the landscape; it obliterates it. During this overcast afternoon, every open-air view within a hundred yards invariably includes the CVCLaw Center.

Its strategic location and imposing edifice might as well represent what the law firm has been to many people, but mainly to its clients and opposing counsel. The law firm of Villaraza Cruz Marcelo & Angangco, better known as CVCLaw, has been called the most powerful and most prestigious law office in the country, so powerful that it has gained a meaningful moniker. Simply called “The Firm,” it has also become a magnet for rumors: that it is a gatekeeper to power, that it manipulates the events behind the scenes to its advantage, and lately, that it is running a campaign to oust Chief Justice Renato Corona.

CVCLaw has consistently refuted such talk.

“I think it comes with the territory,” explains Atty. Bienvenido I. Somera, Jr., CVCLaw’s Managing Partner, the man in charge of The Firm’s day-to-day operations. “You’re identified with powerful figures, like the President, and being the President means having many enemies.” Somera is referring to President Fidel V. Ramos, who was CVCLaw’s client during his 1992 presidential campaign. It was during the Ramos presidency that CVCLaw gained its formidable reputation.

Managing Partner Bienvenido Somera Jr. (Inquirer Photo/Alanah Torralba)

Back in 1980, it was a tiny law office bristling with youth and idealism as the young lawyers struck out on their own. While it began life as Carpio Villaraza Cruz & Rosell, the law office would gain its most familiar name in 1985 when it became Carpio Villaraza & Cruz, the CVC in the office’s name. Those three men, Antonio “Tony” Carpio, F. Arthur “Pancho” Villaraza and Avelino “Nonong” Cruz, would nurse the fledgling law firm and help make it grow.

A key partner joined the firm in 1982: Simeon Marcelo. “Litigation—that was the reason they took me in because none of the founding partners was a litigation expert,” Marcelo says. “They took me in with the promise that we’d establish a litigation department and that I would eventually head it and become a partner.” All of which happened, as CVCLaw grew, particularly in the fields of corporate law and litigation.

“It took time,” Somera says. “In the time of Ramos, we were not yet even 40 lawyers. But when really kept us growing was the vision of the three (founders). Ordinarily partners would divide the income among themselves and leave it at that. But they did not think that way. They kept reinvesting their profits, kept it within the firm, kept on investing in lawyers.”

Litigation superstar Simeon Marcelo (Inquirer Photo/Alanah Torralba)

Today, CVCLaw has between 70 to 80 lawyers and a thriving practice that covers the different fields of law, from property law to criminal law, though a lot of its work is done in the field of litigation, corporate law and intellectual property.  Its clients include the biggest corporations in the country, among them the Lopez Group, the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation, Banco De Oro and United Laboratories.

But with the impressive roster of clients and big cases has come controversy. It was during the Ramos years that journalist Louie Beltran first dubbed CVCLaw “The Firm,” comparing it to the shadowy and crooked firm of Bendidi, Lambert & Locke in John Grisham’s 1991 best-seller of the same title.

At that time, Marcelo remembers that CVCLaw was helping the Ramos government with its battle with telecommunications giant Philippine Long Distance Telephone, Co. (PLDT), in an attempt to break up its monopoly. “There was black propaganda against our law office, as some parties were saying that we wanted to break up the monopoly so that our clients could take over.” Beltran would change his mind after hearing the company’s side. “In fact, we became his lawyers,” Marcelo says.

But the name had already stuck. “We decided to turn something negative into something positive,” Marcelo explains. “Okay, we said, so we’re The Firm. What does that mean? What is The Firm? It is a law office in the Philippines that gives the best legal services. What the partners try to pass on to our associates is our passion for excellence.”

Romina Bernardo (seated) and James Donato (Inquirer Photo/Alanah Torralba)

CVCLaw has clearly learned to embrace it formerly derogatory nickname. In the imposing lobby of the CVCLaw Center, the words “The Firm” are actually featured prominently along with its official name. The distinction is reflected as well in the luxurious appointments of its office. The halls smell like a spa. The building has its own helipad and a gym called Firmness First. Also well known is the CVCLaw Center’s restaurant, the Rainmaker Lounge, which is handled by concessionaire Gaita Fores.

The building might have luxuries but work at CVCLaw is anything but soft. Just ask first-year Junior Associates Atty. Romina R. Bernardo and Atty. James Donato. Both graduates of the University of the Philippines College of Law, they joined CVCLaw for the training.

“The best thing about CVC is the really excellent training,” Donato says. “That could mean long hours of work, but so far in the one year I’ve been here it’s been worth it.” Bernardo says the hard part is “the sheer amount of work.” Contrary to what you see on television, a lot of decision-making in the courts is not done through oral arguments but through the seemingly endless filing of motions and similar processes. This constitutes a truly frightening amount of paper work on the part of lawyers like Bernardo and Donato, who are assigned to work on cases in teams by a partner-in-charge.

WITTY: Disbar, The Firm’s house bar (Inquirer Photo/Alanah Torralba)

“We’ll be here at the office from 8 a.m. to 11 or 12 at night,” Donato says. Bernardo says they are assisted by a very efficient support system, including a good library. “I think what makes this place conducive to training, and I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it’s the people.” She says that some pleadings run only two pages but a team can spend weeks working on them. They are also asked to occasionally appear in court as collaborating counsel.

Hiring good people is something The Firm takes seriously. Somera explains that they only recruit the top 20 students from only two law schools: Ateneo and UP. “We check how hard-working the person is,” he says.

“Lawyering has difficult, long-hour days. Preparation is 90 percent of the job,” confirms Marcelo.

The starting pay isn’t all that much though.  A Junior Associate has a starting salary of anywhere from P25,000 to P40,000, with a modest pay bump when they move up to Senior Associate. From there, one seeks to become a Junior Partner and then finally a Senior Partner, with the appropriate rise in income as well; a complete rise to the top could take almost a decade of legal toiling.

Holding all this together on a daily basis is Somera, a tall, lean man who moves with deliberate simplicity. The son of a lawyer couple, the UP law graduate says that the hardest part of his job is simply keeping The Firm running. “I have to make sure we have enough money to do that.”

Beyond the big corporate cases, CVCLaw also does some pro bono cases, the most memorable being the case of Rosielyn Federico, the fastfood employee who was raped and killed in Marikina in 1993.

LUXE: The Firm basks in its moniker and enjoys an on-site resto run by Gaita Fores no less (Inquirer Photo/Alanah Torralba)

Someone who remembers that case very well is Marcelo, who admits to being “very hyperactive.” The former would-be seminarian and “L.A. Law” fan from Santa Rosa, Nueva Ecija likes to tell the story of how he chose to go to UP Law instead of taking up engineering or medicine: the College of Law didn’t require him to take ROTC training, from which he had been exempted as a seminarian. Marcelo was well known as a litigator but first became famous when he joined the team of private prosecutors during the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada.

He had to leave The Firm in 2001 when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo named him Solicitor-General. “It was very exciting,” he recalls. He would then become Ombudsman in 2002 but would leave in 2005 due to ill health from working too hard.  He had since been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Together with fellow government appointee Nonong Cruz, Marcelo returned to CVCLaw in 2008.

He professes disappointment when he sees the former members of the Arroyo administration being prosecuted.  “I’m very, very disappointed because I made a lot of sacrifices, but everything has gone to waste. I remember Solita Monsod telling me that I was the reason for all these things that happened after I had resigned. Everyone was afraid because they knew GMA cannot control me, but after that… All the reforms that I put in the Office of the Ombudsman were (discarded) by (Merceditas) Gutierrez. That’s why I felt so bad about the office.”

But he adds that he doesn’t regret his time in government, saying it changes a person. “Before, when I handled a case, I was ruthless and willing to do anything as long as it’s not unethical to win. Now, there’s a new factor that’s been added, which is public interest. I will not handle a case that will adversely affect public interest.”

Attorney Joel Bodegon, Managing Partner of Bodegon Estorninos Guerzon Borje & Gozos Law Offices and one of Justice Corona’s defense team has crossed swords with CVCLaw in the courtroom. He says that “to be called ‘The Firm’ means to have access to Malacañang, its officials, the senators and congressmen, judges and justices.”

OWNING THE NAME: On-site gym at The Firm (Inquirer Photo/Alanah Torralba)

Indeed, The Firm “acts as consultant to congressional committees of both houses, government agencies and officials. Deserved or not, CVCLaw must have to accept the reputation, and be reminded that it must have to address and deal with the bad side of it,” Bodegon adds.

That is exactly what CVCLaw has done, taking people such as columnist Niñez Cacho Olivares and former Solicitor-General Frank Chavez to court for their barbs about CVCLaw. “If the attack is in media, we come out with our position on the matter. If it is not accurate, we correct it. We have to defend ourselves with the tools available to us,” Somera explains.

Atty. Jo Aurea Imbong, who teaches media law at the Ateneo de Manila University says that, based on reputation, the real target of criticisms about The Firm is founding member Carpio, who served as Chief Presidential Legal Counsel to Ramos but is now Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (SC). The connection between Carpio and CVCLaw has led to accusations that The Firm has an unfair advantage before the SC.

Notwithstanding that speculation, the law firm has paradoxically enough, been accused of secretly running a campaign to oust Corona to have Carpio in his stead. Not true, says Marcelo. “Modesty aside, if we were behind the impeachment proceedings, he would have been convicted by now,” he adds.

Says Somera: “Now the detractors of Tony (Carpio) will say that if he becomes Chief Justice, The Firm will again benefit. I don’t know if the people know this, but Tony Carpio will always inhibit himself when there is any shadow of our presence in a case. So there’s no benefit to us at all.”

But being affiliated with The Firm does not exempt its lawyers from the tricky shoals of the Philippine justice system which, Marcelo says, is corrupt.  “You learn by reputation who are corrupt. Lawyers are mayabang (boastful). They use it as part of their marketing plan, that they have this judge or that judge in their pocket. Nothing’s kept secret.”

Says Imbong: “Let me put it this way: One rotten mango can infect the rest of the crop.”

Imbong says the problem also lies in the system being skewed in favor of the rich: “This is more obvious in the imposition of excessive filing fees which deter poor litigants from initiating otherwise legitimate complaints. The judicial system should not be used to raise revenue. The justice system is too critical to a stable society as to be used to raise money.”

Bodegon puts it all to “our impaired value system. Judges and justices are corrupt because people corrupt them.”

But lawyers and the law profession also get a bad rap, Somera notes. “It’s because people think lawyers are argumentative. They’re always controversial. There will always be a winner in a controversy and there will always be a loser. The noisy one will always be the loser. So who do they blame, always the lawyer. Again, it comes with the territory.”

Still, the profession continues to be a popular choice among young people. Says Donato: “I’d like to think that the young people who choose law are a bit more idealistic and are motivated to do something about things that bother them.”

In recent days, The Firm has seen an increase in the number of tax cases as well as those involving family law.

“Because of the media attention and the property involved, family law cases can become complex,” says Somera. “A legal separation and annulment case becomes complicated because of the separation of properties especially if the litigants come from rich families. There has to be a determination as to whose is whose.”

CVCLaw is representing Susan Madrigal Bayot in the concubinage case she has filed against estranged husband Francisco Ortigas III.

The Firm has no reason to doubt its prospects, but the partners say the future is not a matter of adding more lawyers or taking more cases, but a case of maintaining its level of service.  Says Marcelo:  “Right now, the goal is to preserve the institution so that when we’re gone, it will continue. And then the legacy will continue as well: when you’re doing well, you should also do good.” •

Remembering Rosielyn

The story of Rosielyn Federico sounds like a cautionary tale mothers tell their kids, but it quickly became a nightmare once the legal process began.

Federico, a nursing student, was on her way home to Parang, Marikina, from her cashier’s job  at a Cindy’s outlet in SM Centerpoint, Sta. Mesa when she vanished on the evening of July 5, 1993.  Two days, later her decomposing body was discovered just a short distance from her home  at Riverdale Subdivision.

It would eventually be revealed that she had been abducted on her way home, brought to an apartment where she was gang-raped repeatedly then strangled to death before being dumped in a vacant lot. Seven men would eventually be charged with the crime, but one of them would elude lawmen and never be found while another would turn state witness. Five men were tried for multiple rape with homicide at the Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 161. Despite the suspects’ confessions, the five were shockingly acquitted in 1996 on a technicality when the judge ruled that the confessions had been acquired without the presence of legal counsel and thus inadmissible. The verdict was roundly castigated.

Simeon Marcelo, who considers this the most controversial criminal case he has handled, remembers that he worked pro bono on the case. “In the case of (Faustino) Federico, whose daughter was kidnapped for several days, raped and then dumped dead and the suspects acquitted, what can you tell this old man? You can tell him the judicial system is bulok (rotten) but that will not assuage the pain. That’s why he was so happy when we got the acquittal annulled and we got a new trial.” The victim’s father had to mortgage their residential lot twice in the course of the trial and was never able to return to his job in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

In 1998, the case was reopened by the Court of Appeals and the “not guilty” verdict dropped.  The Supreme Court agreed. A second trial was held and in 2002, almost nine years since the original crime, another Pasig RTC judge found the five men guilty of the crime, sentenced them to life imprisonment and ordered each of them to pay the Federico family P1.186 million in actual, moral and exemplary damages and loss of earning capacity.

“We were able to get the accused convicted,” Marcelo remembers. “We were able to get the acquittal reversed in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.  We had another trial, got the guys convicted and the verdict upheld by the Court of Appeals. The case is now in the Supreme Court.” RSDV

Corporate Crises

Corporate cases rank among the most complicated and protracted cases that Villaraza Cruz Marcelo & Angangco handles, as these usually involve large amounts of money and drawn-out court battles. Here, according to Simeon Marcelo, are The Firm’s most controversial cases:

1. The tax case of Shell in 2010, involving billions of pesos. The Bureau of Customs had charged Shell with technical smuggling allegedly due to misdeclaration of imported petroleum products and Shell countersued. “We were defending Shell because we think it was part of an extortion scheme involving the Customs people.”

2. The Legacy case:  CVCLaw got involved in the massive financial scandal left behind by Celso de los Angeles’ Legacy Group of Companies. In 2008, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas shuttered 13 rural Legacy banks for unsound practices and insolvency. “Unfortunately, the mastermind died,” Marcelo says. “We were representing Bangko Sentral.”  De los Angeles died of throat cancer in March, 2012.

3. The Meralco case: The Government Service Insurance System, allegedly backed by San Miguel Corporation, had attempted a takeover of utility company Meralco in the boardroom in 2009 when its shares bloomed from a mere 9 percent to 27 percent. Marcelo, who acted as counsel for Meralco, recalls that the Lopez family eventually sold 30 percent of its stock to a group led by Manny V. Pangilinan to block the takeover attempt. Comparing the case to Martial Law-era takeovers, Marcelo describes the case as “a bruising battle.”

4. The Philex Mining case:  This 1983 case involved the Philex Mining Corporation. “We wanted to put an independent director in the board but we were up against my alma mater (the ACCRA law firm) and one of those who trained me (Raul Roco).” Ultimately, The Firm succeeded. “We were able to put in our independent director.” Marcelo says this was their first big case and got The Firm noticed.

5. The SM Megamall case: “It was a fight between stockholders,” Marcelo says. The SM Megamall Project was plunged into chaos in 1992 when a legal battle broke out between the SM Group and some of its partners in the project. Marcelo, the head of The Firm’s litigation department, remembers being described as “smart but too young” by one of the litigants.  In the end, the case ended up with a compromise and a dismissal of the case,  “and we didn’t pay anything,” Marcelo says with a laugh. RSDV