The Oatmeal Savage

My dad died in 1999, and shortly after his death, one of the lawyers (Brian MacIvor) at his old firm wrote a story for Nota Bene, the local legal newsletter. Recently, as Brian was sitting around the office, he came across the letter, re-read it and thought that I might like to have a copy. As I read through the story, I smiled to myself (as I often do when I recall my dad’s life). Undoubtedly, the greatest laughs will come from those who knew him, but it seems to me that everyone should be able to appreciate the story. So, without further delay, here it is.

JAMES D. YOUNG, QC (1942 - 1999): The Takeover by an “Oatmeal Savage”

I knew James Douglas (“J.D.”) Young, QC, only as well as one might expect to know a co-worker, which fact alone should probably have compelled me to remove my fingers from the keyboard as I started typing. Alas, it did not, and I will tell you why.

I liked him as a lawyer and I liked him as a person. That is a statement which is too rarely uttered when referring to a member of the local legal community or, for that matter, any legal community.

I had not previously shared more than a half-dozen words with J.D. when he approached Cheadle Johnson Shanks MacIvor (“CJSM”) in the fall of 1995 to consider a merger of his firm of two lawyers and two staff with our firm of nine lawyers and 14 staff. I suspect he realised that his health would not be able to shoulder to his satisfaction the continuing burdens associated with the practice of law. For reasons that are not important to this writing, Bill Shanks and I assumed the task of negotiating the merger on behalf of CJSM. At our first meeting, an overcast and chilly Saturday morning in October, we met with J.D. in the CJSM second-floor boardroom. After the usual pleasantries were exchanged, J.D. cleared his throat quite deliberately and declared, “You do know that this will be a reverse takeover by an ‘Oatmeal Savage’?” I laughed. He laughed. Hell, even Bill laughed.

The source of my laughter was not his reference to “Oatmeal Savage,” which, I later learned, was a term he used often to mock his Scottish ancestry. I laughed because I thought it amusing that anyone would have the temerity to offer so bold a statement as his or her introductory remarks. I still laugh when I think of that first meeting. Why? Because it turned out that he was right.

And I believe that the word “takeover” best summarises how I will remember J.D.

Through a unique combination of intellect, fearlessness, charm, wit, compassion, adroit language skills, and alcohol tolerance, J.D. could initiate a “takeover” of a file, a client, an adversary, a colleague, a subordinate, a firm, a courtroom, a meeting, a letter, a telephone call, or a social gathering. I offer the following verbal stream of consciousness in support of my memories of J.D.’s “takeovers.”

  • He joined CJSM on December 1, 1995. The firm’s office Christmas party was held some two weeks later. It was a rather dull and spartan affair, held as a late afternoon lunch, for the firm was not renowned for its spendthrift ways. J.D., upon his tardy arrival, announced to those in attendance, “Holiday greetings, all. Hey, what kind of f**kin’ party is this?” His sense of joie de vivre offended, J.D. undertook the role of organising the firm’s office Christmas party the following year and in subsequent years. They were neither dull nor spartan. Nor did they involve lunch. They did, however, entail J.D. as the consummate host/entertainer and many shots of Drambuie. My last recollection from the 1996 Christmas party was that of J.D., wearing his kilt as he was wont to do at social functions, breakdancing on the floor of the banquet room at the White Fox Inn. In true Scottish tradition, the “Oatmeal Savage” was not wearing underwear. I could tell, as could others. Staff morale was restored, insofar as the office Christmas party was concerned.
  • On each and every Valentine’s Day since the merger, the entire staff arrived at work to discover a flower and vase on their desks. At Easter, they would find some chocolate or other confection. No card or other indication of the benefactor was ever provided. On Robbie Burns Day (January 25th), they found a tartan scarf or a “wee dram.” Orchestrated by J.D., of course, who would enter by stealth the night before and distribute the gifts. No pomp. No circumstance. No outward or vocal attempt to seek gratitude. There was, however, no uncertainty among the staff as to the identity of the “responsible” party.
  • The office candy jar, which was usually filled courtesy of the staff, was often sampled by the lawyers. Not that any of them, myself included, would ever think to fill it, offer to fill it, or provide money for its filling. Except J.D., who would throw a $20 bill in the jar when it was empty, yet deny having ever done so.
  • At his first partners’ meeting in February 1996, he persuaded the partners to hold an annual staff appreciation dinner. At the city’s nicest hotel, no less. With an open bar. “Why?” he was asked. “Why not?” he replied. The Oatmeal Savage was apparently a student of philosophy. And so it was done in March 1996 as well as in subsequent years, and done well. In the same spirit, he held an afternoon garden party at his home in the fall of 1998 and presented to each staff member a rose he claimed to have grown in his garden. He had not grown them, naturally, but it did sound good.
  • While at the firm, J.D. imposed his habit of holding an end of term dinner in November of each year for the litigation lawyers. Though my knowledge of legal tradition is weak, J.D. informed me of a traditional annual dinner held at the end of the “Michaelmas” or “Hilary” term in the days of yesteryear or some other such shibboleth. I suspect it may have been merely an excuse to socialise with the associate lawyers and to get drunk at the firm’s expense. A noble cause.
  • One could not help but notice the generous and respectful manner in which J.D. treated the three individuals with whom he worked most closely: Peter White, Shirley Legros, and Irene Krasniuk. It was a partnership of equals, with not even the slightest hint of a master-servant relationship. Credit was shared, though he absorbed all blame. Others in the office made weak attempts to hide their jealousy, which was understandable, given that none of them had previously witnessed a working relationship of this nature within a law office.
  • Unlike most lawyers who travel the shortest distance from the front door to their desk, J.D. wandered throughout the office upon his arrival in the morning like a laboratory rat lost in a complex maze. He wanted to ensure that he had greeted everyone with a friendly “Hello” or “Good morning,” though he once claimed jokingly that he made the rounds to “grab a quick pinch of flesh.”
  • The sage words of advice that J.D. offered this writer: “As soon as a lawyer starts to blame the staff for any woes, it is certain that the blame rests with the lawyer.” Too true, though some are reluctant to admit it.
  • I recall the first lunch date that I shared with J.D. He asked me to “set the tone for the meeting,” so I ordered a Caesar. The odourless vodka, I thought, would not be detected by my client in the meeting scheduled for that afternoon. J.D. ordered a bottle of red wine, then another, and invited me to have a glass. I declined and explained my dilemma regarding the afternoon client meeting, but J.D. reminded me of the credo that he had adopted some years ago: “If you are going to drink alcohol at lunch, it is best to drink something that leaves a noticeable odour on your breath. For it is better to have your client think you are drunk rather than just stupid.” Yes, legal Puritans, it was intended as humorous. Given that guidance, I had some red wine. Lots of red wine, I vaguely recall.
  • In one of his last “head injury” cases, one of the defendants was a large retail hardware store. It was alleged that the store sold a baby seat with improper instructions for installation. The Toronto lawyers for the store had previously advised their client to contribute nothing to any proposed settlement. J.D. was scheduled to attend one final settlement meeting before trial. In preparation for these discussions, J.D. purchased a similar baby seat from the store, attached it via a long rope to the bumper of his van, and drove to the meeting’s location dragging the baby seat behind his vehicle. During the meeting, J.D. asked the Toronto lawyers to look out the office window at the parking lot, where they noted the odd installation and now shabby condition of the baby seat attached to his van. “I just purchased a baby seat from your client,” he remarked drolly. The Toronto lawyers advised their client to contribute $250,000 to the settlement, which amount was subsequently paid.

Takeovers, indeed. I suspect that, wherever he is now, the “Oatmeal Savage” is initiating another reverse takeover. By the time we arrive at that final destination, I can assure you that it will be a much more sociable place with J.D. at the helm.