Mental health, governance of legal profession top of mind for new B.C. bar president

By Ian Burns

Law360 Canada (September 14, 2023, 4:37 PM EDT) -- The newly minted president of the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch (CBABC) is saying he wants to tackle mental health concerns in the legal profession as part of his term in office, noting a recent study which raised alarm bells about how many lawyers were struggling — and an issue which he has his own lived experience with.

Called to the bar in 2007, Scott Morishita now takes the helm at the CBABC for the 2023-24 term. Morishita, a University of Victoria law graduate who currently works as associate counsel at personal injury and class action law firm Rice Harbut Elliott LLP, served as Vancouver county representative for the CBABC from 2018 to 2021 and on the organization’s board of directors since 2020.

But as he takes on the presidency, Morishita said at the top of his mind is acting on the findings from last year’s national study on wellness in the legal profession, in which more than half of respondents reported experiencing psychological distress and burnout, with some reporting thoughts of suicide.

Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC) president Scott Morishita

Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC) president Scott Morishita

“I think generally most people were not surprised with the overall findings, but as lawyers and journalists we always talk  about the need for data — so what the study did was prove to us what we were suspecting is what was really happening,” he said. “It emphasizes to us that we need to take a look at what we are doing as an organization and a profession to see what we need to be doing – and so there is an urgency on that for sure.”

And the issue is also a personal one for Morishita. During his articling year he began struggling with his own mental health issues and ultimately, after he was hired back at his firm, he decided to take some time off — which he said was at the time the toughest decision he ever made.

“I didn’t want to do it at first, because the level of dialogue and awareness of mental health issues was nowhere near the level it is now — I thought it was the end of my career,” he said. “I think really what prevented me from seeking treatment was the overall fear of appearing weak or appearing ‘damaged’ in some way. So, it was a tough road coming back, but it was the best thing I could have done.”

A second issue that Morishita anticipates being a major one over the next year is the province’s move to revamp governance of the legal professions, which includes a pledge to bring in a single regulator.  

“We have a number of concerns, but the key one from the CBA’s perspective is preserving the self-regulation of lawyers — and flowing from that, their independence,” he said. “The government has sent signals that the new governing body of the regulator will be smaller and our position and the position for most of the legal organizations is that it is critically important that the majority of that governing board be comprised of lawyers and are chosen by lawyers. That is necessary for self-regulation, and self-regulation is a critical component of an independent profession.”

Morishita said the reason CBABC feels so strongly about the issue is because “lawyers must be free to act fearlessly for their client.”

“We are often up against the government, whether it be a civil or criminal matter — or it may not be the government itself, but it may be some Crown corporation or agency of the government,” he said. “And in order for us to do that properly we can’t be in a situation where we are essentially regulated by the government. I’ll be connecting with lawyers across the province to make sure all member voices are heard.”

Morishita replaces Aleem Bharmal as CBABC president. More information about the CBABC can be found here.

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