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An Oakland judge shot down a legal secretary’s claim that she was entitled to inherit as much as $400,000 from her former law firm’s client. Alameda County Superior Court Judge William McKinstry’s 22-page opinion slammed the attorney who drafted the trust, W. Lansing “Lance” Russum, for manipulating Pacific Gas & Electric Co. retiree James Collins, who died in May 2002. Russum and the secretary, Barbara Hanson, “acted in concert” to take advantage of the lonely 78-year-old, the judge wrote. “The court finds that Barbara Hanson and W. Lance Russum were in a position to take advantage of James Collins’ obvious vulnerability,” said the tentative ruling, issued Tuesday. “It appears that Mr. Russum was ready to take advantage of any opportunity that might present itself to his law office in the form of a lonely, aged person with assets,” McKinstry later concluded. Russum and his attorney, H. Wayne Goodroe, could not be reached for comment Thursday. In In re the Collins Trust, 02255983, Collins’ family argued that Collins’ gift to Hanson, estimated to be worth between $320,000 and $400,000, should be ruled invalid. An outside lawyer should have reviewed the trust, argued Alameda solo Laurence Padway. Russum and his employees had inherited from clients in the past. That gave Hanson �� a legal secretary for Russum who later was convicted of embezzlement in an unrelated case �� a big incentive to forge ties with Collins, a recluse who took psychiatric medication, he said. Hanson’s attorney, Reed Smith Crosby Heafey partner Bette Epstein, has argued that Collins’ friendship with 32-year-old Hanson wasn’t sinister and lasted for more than a decade. Hanson helped coordinate Collins’ health care after other relatives moved away and his health failed, she told the court. Collins refused to have another lawyer look over the trust, and signed a waiver instead, because he was certain about Hanson’s gift, Epstein argued. In his decision, McKinstry pointed to signs that “undue influence” and fraud were at work. In other early estate plans, Collins gave “concrete” gifts such as $5,000. Hanson’s gift was for a “residue” of the trust, a concept that Collins �� who, according to court testimony, had trouble with basic math �� could not have understood. In other passages, the judge blasted Russum for playing fast and loose with ethics and suggested that Hanson’s inheritance may have been harder to contest if Russum had let another lawyer handle the trust. “Mr. Russum’s past approach to taking under his client’s will reflects an attitude toward influencing his own clients,” McKinstry wrote. “This was a risky practice.” On Thursday, the Collins relatives’ attorney praised McKinstry’s ruling. “He understands that it’s his role to honor the memory and protect the wishes of the person who has moved on,” Padway said. Law firms and legal staff have to keep a professional distance from clients and “this went straight across the line,” Padway said. Epstein, Hanson’s lawyer, said she was disappointed that McKinstry’s ruling didn’t weigh extensive witness testimony about the long friendship that her client shared with Collins. “When Barbara [Hanson] read it, she was saddened and hurt that the relationship was demeaned and diminished in importance,” said Epstein. There was “no evidence” given at trial that Hanson and Russum were acting as a team, Epstein emphasized. Although the ruling gave the plaintiffs a decisive victory, it may have laid seeds for other legal action. The ruling’s criticisms of Russum may help Hanson in her malpractice lawsuit against Russum, filed May 13. Hanson v. Russum, 03096181, alleges that Russum was negligent when he failed to have an outside attorney review the will and didn’t inform Collins about the risk of Russum not doing so. Hanson wants Russum to pay the $320,000 she would have inherited, attorneys fees and costs she incurred during the inheritance court battle. Epstein says it’s likely that Collins’ family will now seek attorneys fees from Hanson. Hanson may make claims for indemnity, because she says it’s Russum’s fault that Hanson’s gift was contested, the Reed Smith partner said. “She has been impugned by his misconduct,” Epstein said. McKinstry’s harsh ruling also seems to raise issues about Russum’s ethics. Padway, the Alameda lawyer who represents Collins’ relatives, would not comment on that issue. However, Epstein said: “I would not be surprised if Judge McKinstry made a State Bar complaint.”

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