The Law Society of BC has ruled that former West Vancouver Mayor Mark Sager committed professional misconduct by getting a will prepared for a client that would include him as one of the beneficiaries. The society also ruled professional misconduct on Sager’s acceptance of a $75,000 gift from his client without that client receiving independent legal advice.
Sager admitted he breached the rules but says he was unaware of the prohibitions because they were not yet included in the legal rule book.
“The crux of his argument is that, during the time period in question, he was unaware of the prohibitions in rules 3.4-39 and 3.4-38, which had only come into force as part of the new BC Code on January 1, 2013,” the society said in its ruling.
The law society rejected that argument.
Sager was the Mayor of West Vancouver for one term and ran unsuccessfully in last October election.
The society said in its decision on Monday that Sager’s acceptance of the gift contravenes a legal code which says that a lawyer must not accept a gift that is more than nominal — unless the client has received independent legal advice.
In this case, the client, “Auntie J”, was also a close family friend of Sager, and would ultimately write him into her will. The Society said while Sager didn’t ask for the gift, his client, identified as JB, was an elderly client and vulnerable because of her physical limitations.
Sager said in an interview to CBC last year that the client in question was his godmother. “I did do some legal work for her, I never charged her one penny and she came into some unexpected funds and wanted to give me a gift,” Sager said.
The society said there was a clear inequality of power dynamic between them and it disagreed with Sager’s contention that the gift was nominal. It was ‘very substantial’, the society says.
The society also didn’t buy Sager’s argument that he didn’t view JB as a client, but as a close family member. That was an unsatisfactory response, the society said, given than Sager and his firm had acted for JB in several matters, including her divorce. The society said it was relevant to note than Sager was an experienced lawyer who had a policy of not accepting gifts from clients.
“We therefore infer that he was aware of the concern that arises where a client seeks to bestow a gift upon a lawyer. Yet he failed even to suggest to JB that she obtain independent legal advice, which while insufficient by itself to avoid a breach of rule 3.4-39, would arguably have made the breach less serious,” the society noted in its decision.
The society also found Sager had contravened the legal code by getting prepared a gift that would include him as a beneficiary. The society agreed that Sager tried to address this conflict by having a junior associate prepare the will, but this solution was unsatisfactory.
“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,” the society noted.
Sager argued that these breaches didn’t constitute a “marked departure” from the standards the Law Society accepts and did not amount to a professional misconduct. He said this breach was inadvertent and due to a general lack of familiarity with new rules added to the Professional Conduct Handbook in 2013.
The society rejected those arguments, saying that the breach occurred more than a year after the BC code came into effect. “This is not a situation where a rule of very recent vintage caught a lawyer by surprise,” it said.