Practice with Empathy

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Student aims to be lawyer highly skilled and deeply human

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

In December 2012, a three-week trip to the Philippines morphed into a 2-1/2-year stint abroad for Ria Macasaet, born and raised in Manila. Refused reentry into Canada, Macasaet — then a permanent resident — sought out immigration lawyers to help her navigate the appeals process of the Immigration and Refugee Board.

“This was my first taste of the law. Not only did it inform the way I approach setbacks, it also added nuance to the way I view the legal system. It taught me many things, and one is that — of all the fundamental skills important to clients — empathy is easily the skill I wanted from my lawyers the most,” says Macasaet, now in her 3L year in the Dual Degree program at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and University of Windsor Faculty of Law.

“Given that my legal entanglement upended not only the life I knew but also the plans I had, it was important to me that my lawyers understood exactly what and just how much was on the line. As a client with no knowledge of the intricacies of the law, I appreciated the only way I would ‘win’ is if my lawyers told my story more effectively, or in a more compelling way. If nothing else, I intuitively understood it’s much easier to fight vigorously for someone who is more than just a file number. A deep understanding of what it meant to me, and empathizing with that on some level, paves the way for that.”

Her lawyers offered her the option of self-representation before the Appeals Division to reduce her total legal costs — an option she successfully undertook.

“They were as effective as I needed them to be. At the same time, our relationship still felt fraught with somber imbalance. I often felt kept in the dark, at times even taken lightly,” she says. “While I now understand there was likely no implicit malice and that bureaucracy does not necessarily lend itself to predictability, my experience left much to be desired. I’ve since learned there is plenty of data that show that far from my experience being an anomaly, empathy has unfortunately too often been found to be lacking in lawyer-client relationships.”

Exposed to the legal profession through family members who practiced in it, Macasaet always had a legal career at the back of her mind, but it wasn’t until this “run-in” with the law that her interest solidified.

“It made me want to learn how to carve out the type of lawyering I — and as it turns out, many clients in general — desired: one less rigid and more empathetic, but one that is both highly skilled and deeply human. I’ve seen it in law school through many practitioners. It’s not an oxymoron,” she says.

Prior to law school, Macasaet worked for KeatsConnelly, a cross-border wealth management firm headquartered in Phoenix. Working out of the Canadian office in Calgary, Macasaet worked closely with a local law firm, and heard about the Dual JD program from two senior associates who were program alumni and highly recommended it.

The two law schools have been a good fit for her.

“I take great pride in the fact that both Windsor Law and Detroit Mercy Law — as a Jesuit-run institution — have a strong social justice focus. The program is intense — having to earn two degrees in three years — but I’m grateful for the aspects that are extremely practical.” she says.

A highlight was her 2018 judicial internship for Judge Michael Gerou in Wayne County’s 35th District Court. “He was an incredible mentor,” she says. “He created an extensive internship experience for his students, which exposed us to a whole range of tasks — from drafting memoranda to entering pleadings on the record.

“I also had the rare opportunity of acting as a special prosecutor at trial. The case involved a stop alleged to be racially discriminatory. Under the supervision of a licensed attorney, I was given free rein to examine and cross-examine the witnesses and argue that the evidence did not support the allegation. I had just finished one year of law school then. It was terrifying. The chief judge decided in our favor, which makes it my very first win. That was a privilege.”

Involved with Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) since her 1L year at Windsor Law, Macasaet now serves as one of two Program Coordinators for the chapter. The first pro bono organization in Canada with hundreds of access to justice placements around the country, PBSC is a national, multiple-award-winning organization with chapters in 22 of Canada’s 23 law schools.

“It’s extremely special to me to be entrusted with the opportunity to lead the Windsor Chapter in my final year,” she says. “As someone who couldn’t have afforded the legal services I needed without the help of my parents, I have a deep appreciation for the value of pro bono. We have a hardworking, professional team and a chapter with a great history of working well with the local community.
They make the work feel more like a passion than a job.”

Currently living in Windsor, where she volunteers at the Food Bank, in April Macasaet will move to British Columbia to work as an articled student in Vancouver.

“I’m thrilled and looking forward to soaking up as much knowledge and experience as I can,” she says. “I spent a bit of time conversing with my future mentors at my firm and are in constant communication with them. I’m happily learning that we share the same values. They are incredibly supportive of my goals, growth, and wellbeing. I feel extremely fortunate and I’m excited to get started.

“The next years are going to be devoted to learning as much as I can and becoming the best litigator I can be — a job my supervisors take very seriously. But ultimately, I also want to contribute to increasing access to justice — although the how, the who, and the what have yet to come into focus.”

In the meantime, Macasaet is looking forward to joining a rowing club in Vancouver, and continuing her passion for hiking, kayaking, cycling, and other outdoor pursuits.

“I also love to travel and previously kept an intensive travel blog for an entire decade — before it was cool,” she says with a smile.



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