How John McGrory saved an empire for his yogi-practitioner clients

Published in 2013 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Rommelmann on July 10, 2013


“Have you ever seen skate skiing? It’s like this,” says John McGrory, getting up from a conference table at Davis Wright Tremaine and pantomiming the swoosh-swoosh before a wall of windows. The view, from this tallest building in Oregon, is of the Willamette River and a skyscraper under construction, its steel frame exposed and looking like something one could climb up, if one had the tendency to climb tall things.

It’s a climb the antitrust litigator is probably capable of, what with the ski racing (he just returned from a 50K Birkebeiner in Wisconsin); the marathon running; the physical sense that he is revving, always revving. One can feel velocity coming from him even when he sits still.

Fitting, for a man who says he prefers “being the plaintiff, the party that’s suing. It’s just fun trying to be a step ahead of the defense.”

The stamina came in handy for a case McGrory recently won, in which he represented the followers of Yogi Bhajan, who in the late 1960s came to the United States from India, preaching Sikhism and teaching Kundalini yoga. The movement Yogi Bhajan founded, Sikh Dharma, went on to spawn several extremely profitable businesses, including Yogi Tea, an empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the time of his death in 2004.

“We represented a group of Western Sikhs,” explains McGrory, who fought to wrest control of the businesses back from the four people Yogi Bhajan had put in charge of the operations. “Our lawsuit alleges that [these four] kept things very secret, didn’t share things with the rest of the community, and transferred ownership of Yogi Tea to a couple of them. Our lawsuit was really about getting back the business and showing there had been a breach of fiduciary duty on the part of the directors. … We won in the trial, and we ended up settling. I was on that case for three years.”

A long trial, made easier by its taking place in Portland. “I like to try cases in my own city,” says McGrory, who grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School in 1981, and in 1987 joined what became, after a merger, Davis Wright Tremaine.

“What I like about Portland is the lawyers are much more collegial and nicer to each other than you’ll find in any other city that I practice in, including San Francisco, LA, New York,” says McGrory. “We go up against lawyers in those cities all the time, and it’s a little bit different than Portland. For example, my kid, she’s a sophomore in college so I don’t have spring break anymore, but in Portland it’s almost like, spring break is kind of sacrosanct when it comes to lawyers. Either they’re home with their kids or they’re available for their kids, and even if you don’t have kids, it’s, oh, it’s spring break!

“What attracts me to Portland more than anything is the opportunity to do outdoor things. … In the wintertime in Portland, I like to get up where the snow is white and the sky is blue. It’s really nice.” McGrory pauses. “I think being in good shape, it really helps you as a trial lawyer. It keeps you sharp. You can work long days.”

Also, perhaps particularly helpful for a person whose job it often is to convert people’s emotions to constructive outcomes?

“Yeah,” he says. “A lawsuit takes a long time, and somebody can come into your office and be really fired up and mad about something, and have suffered a huge loss, and by golly, they really want to do something about it. Well, they might not feel the same way after paying six months’ legal bills, or having to attend depositions, or a year later, they’re still in it. So you want to make sure you’re really on their side and go after it for them.”

Meaning, he must be the one to hold the line for clients, who, when the evidence is laid before them, might think, Gee, maybe I had something to do with this problem?

“We all do that in our lives about everything—usually it’s the next morning,” says McGrory. “But after you file a lawsuit, it’s like: this is the real here and now.”

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