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Hardly taxing: McGaffey simplifies his smarts

Lifetime AchievementJere McGaffey - retired partner, Foley & Lardner LLP - Legal degree obtained from: Harvard University, 1961

Lifetime Achievement
Jere McGaffey – retired partner, Foley & Lardner LLP – Legal degree obtained from: Harvard University, 1961

Jere McGaffey not only wrote eight volumes on business tax law – he got people to read them.

McGaffey is a retired partner, in name at least, at Foley & Lardner LLP who has spent 53 years on the ever-changing U.S. tax laws and transferred his mastery into nationally recognized books and taxation leadership roles.

“Jere has the ability to translate that intelligence into a broad-base understanding and then cross-reference it in his head,” said Benjamin Garmer, a Foley partner, co-author and colleague on thousands of transactions with McGaffey. “That’s very difficult for an ordinary person, but Jere’s not an ordinary person.”

Ambition more than anything else was the big difference for McGaffey. As a high schooler in Nebraska City, Neb., McGaffey said he wasn’t an “exceptional student.” In a gut-check during his undergrad studies, McGaffey saw interests in math and debating as better suited for business than teaching. So, McGaffey put his brain to work, becoming an addict to academic success, which carried him to the top of the class at University of Nebraska and onward to Harvard University Law School.

He followed that drive back to the Midwest and the business practice at the firm which was a few name changes away from Foley & Lardner. Counter to his colleagues and former classmates, McGaffey embraced tax law’s growing complexity in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“As tax became more specialized and complicated, many business [lawyers] got out of the tax part,” he said. “In tax, the emphasis is a lot more on understanding the law and configuring transactions to conform to the law. I found that intriguing.”

With intrigue came work, from penning journal articles, to national conference speaking gigs and a role with the American Bar Association that quickly sat him as the chair of their taxation section. As his tax practice prestige grew, so did the prominence of his client base: A.O. Smith, Wisconsin Gas Co., and Northwestern Mutual, in addition to many brewery buys during Heileman’s heyday.

For a guy who was doing tax work since five years before The Beatles released their tune “Tax Man,” retirement doesn’t prevent McGaffey from coming into the office three days a week. A widower with two grown daughters, the 79-year-old works mostly on trusts and estates now, including the philanthropic Helen Bader Foundation.

There are a few things still left on the list. He would like to figure out in his lifetime the basis of third-party real estate swaps without taxation, and the reasons legislators stagger rules rather implement quick, clear policy changes.

McGaffey said work remains “most enjoyable” with a regular dose of humility, similar to what he finds on the golf course.

“I guess I’ve always had a characteristic of working hard and doing a lot in an attempt to achieve some objective. You don’t always get there,” he said.

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