Kevin M. O’Keefe, Class of 1973
Leading state and local tax lawyer and former White House staff member under President Clinton
Kevin O’Keefe began his legal career at the firm O’Keefe, Ashenden, O’Brien, Hanson and Lyons, where he devoted twenty years to the practice of state and local taxation. He rejoined the firm in 1997, now known as O’Keefe, Lyons & Hynes, LLC, following four years of service in the Clinton Administration. Under his leadership, the firm’s state and local tax group has tripled in size and extended its scope of practice from Cook County to across the nation. He has spoken at all major property tax associations, state and local tax associations and numerous industry trade groups and has published articles in all the leading property tax journals.
O’Keefe served as a member of the national campaign steering committee and as the Illinois chairman of President Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. In 1993, he joined the White House staff as Special Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel, overseeing the nomination and confirmation of all U.S. Attorneys and Marshals and all Presidential regional appointments. He was also appointed as a Deputy Assistant to the President for Inter-Governmental Affairs, acting as a liaison between the White House and the nation’s governors, attorneys-general and mayors.
What was your favorite part of law school?
Probably the process of learning how to think like a lawyer. Not necessarily to take things for granted, but to ask questions and get to the underlying facts in a particular case and figuring out how it applied to the law. I definitely think lawyers think differently than other people.
What has been your greatest challenge?
I don’t feel like I had any huge challenges, because I was trained here how to be a lawyer. When I graduated, the older partners in the law firms kind of gave you a finishing school. The judges in the circuit court completed that finishing school. The biggest challenges I faced career-wise were when I was in Washington, which was trying to understand and work with the judiciary committee and their staff, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and backgrounds for their candidates. It was eye-opening in terms of how the process worked.
What has been your greatest professional achievement?
I did some lawyering in the White House- that would be at the top of the list. Other than when you’re responding to subpoenas and hearings on Capitol Hill, it doesn’t have a litigation concept to it. What you’re doing in a number of occasions is advising the White House staff and sometime the President about the legal consequences of proposed rules and regulations, as well as statutes.
How did Chicago-Kent prepare you for your present success?
Preparation. The only time I was ever prepared for class was when I was in law school. I think that the discipline of learning how to stay ahead. Professors taught you how to manage your time effectively and you had to stay ahead. If you got behind, you probably were never going to dig out. To a great extent, that is also true I think in going through the process of identifying and vetting candidates for U.S. Attorney. You have to do the homework and you have to be prepared to make a recommendation to the President for a very powerful political position. There are only 93 U.S. Attorneys and they are all extremely capable and talented, but trying to figure out who is the best of multiple candidates is enough to rack anyone’s brain.
What advice would you give to young attorneys just starting out today?
Be prepared to work all the way through law school and to work even harder when you get out of law school. When I was starting out, you could take time to think about what advice you were giving. In today’s law practice, a lot of it has become almost instantaneous conducted through emails. People don’t sit with clients anymore or have as much time as we had.