West Vancouver lawyer and former mayor Mark Sager committed professional misconduct when he directed a will to be prepared for an old family friend that named himself as one of the beneficiaries, the B.C. Law Society has ruled.
The decision by a three-person disciplinary panel of the law society, released July 3, also found that Sager's accepting a gift of $75,000 from the same woman when she had not received independent legal advice was also a breach of standards.
According to the written decision issued by the panel, the conduct investigated by the law society concerned Sager’s actions regarding an elderly woman who was Sager's godmother and a close friend of Sager’s mother. Both Sager and his sister had considered the woman an “aunt” since their childhood, referring to her as “Auntie J.”
The woman, identified only as J.B. in law society documents, called Sager in June 2013 seeking his legal help, and over the months that followed, Sager provided her with assistance including drafting a new will, representing her in a divorce, arranging for J.B. to buy out her ex-husband’s share of her home and setting up a power of attorney.
But Sager ran afoul of professional standards when he directed the preparation of a will that gave him a portion of J.B.’s estate, the disciplinary panel ruled. According to law society rules, lawyers must not prepare any legal instrument giving the lawyer a gift from a client unless that client is a family member.
According to the written ruling, Sager acknowledged in his testimony that a junior lawyer in his company Sager Legal Advisors prepared a will for J.B. naming Sager as a beneficiary. And that he had breached rules by accepting a further $75,000 financial gift from J.B. without having her seeking independent legal advice.
According to the law society decision, in 2003, J.B. had made a will in which her sister and her sister’s two adult children would each receive one third of her estate.
Later, when J.B. decided to change her will, the niece was cut out of the will while Sager and his sister were included. Ultimately, the elderly woman left 24 per cent of her estate each to Sager and his sister, referred to in the will as J.B.’s nephew and niece.
A junior lawyer who worked for Sager prepared the will after receiving a draft from Sager’s assistant, when Sager told him he would have to “step in” because J.B. wanted to make Sager a beneficiary and he was “conflicted out,” the junior lawyer testified.
The junior lawyer involved testified he only discovered Sager and J.B. were not legally related when one of J.B.’s sisters filed a petition challenging the will in 2016.
According to the written ruling, Sager testified when the will was prepared he was not aware of the rule that banned a lawyer from preparing a legal document giving that lawyer a gift or benefit from a client who wasn’t directly related.
When Sager later accepted a $75,000 gift from J.B. following Sager’s help with her divorce and property arrangements, he testified that “he had not wanted to accept the gift from J.B. but that his wife had convinced him that sometimes accepting a gift is the right thing to do for the giver.”
Sager also testified that while he “had a policy of not accepting gifts from clients” he “did not think of J.B. as his client” and wasn’t aware of the rule banning lawyers from accepting more than a nominal gift from a client unless that person had received independent legal advice.
Near to the end of her life, J.B. gave Sager another $25,000 as a gift.
Following her death, he received a $96,000 cheque for his share of the woman’s estate.
J.B.’s sister made a complaint to the law society in May 2017.
In its ruling, the disciplinary panel found Sager’s breach of the rules was “a marked departure from the standard that the law society expects of lawyers and thus amounts to professional misconduct.”
“The seriousness of the conflict that arises when a lawyer is asked to prepare a will in which the lawyer is to receive a substantial benefit is patently obvious,” wrote the panel, adding the issue is “particularly acute where the client is elderly and infirm and thus vulnerable.”
The panel added the risk is particularly acute where the lawyer is added as a beneficiary at the same time the share of an estate left to family members in a previous will is reduced.
The panel wrote that Sager also committed professional misconduct by accepting the “very substantial” $75,000 from J.B. while acting as her lawyer and without her obtaining independent legal advice.
Reached Tuesday at his West Vancouver office, Sager described the law society investigation and disciplinary ruling as “very, very personal and painful.”
“It’s certainly nothing in the course of my lifetime I would have ever anticipated,” he said.
Sager said he was grateful that the law society “recognized that the person who gave me the gift was very dear to me as I was very dear to her” and that the woman had full mental capacity when making her decisions.
A penalty for the accompanying the professional misconduct ruling will be decided at a later date. Sager said he’s still considering whether to appeal.
Sager ran for Mayor of West Vancouver in 2018 and lost to Mary-Ann Booth by just 21 votes.