What is your favorite part of Wisconsin?
The Spring Green area. My wife and I enjoy the long drive to Spring Green, where we often take in an outdoor play at the American Players Theatre. Be sure to get the cheese curds. If APT ever brings back “The Philanderer,” it is a must-see comedy.
Take the scenic route back, if you have the time, starting near Black Earth. The area also offers great spots for hiking, as well as fly fishing, although I have not been lucky enough to catch anything yet.
If you won an enormous lottery prize tomorrow, what would you be doing next month?
Finding a place to hide and hiring an exceptionally good lawyer! Once holed up, I would immediately pay off student loans, car loans, and the mortgage and set up fully funded college accounts for my children and retirement accounts for me and my wife. After the boring stuff was all taken care of, I’d take a look at what I had left and create a family foundation to donate to worthy causes on an ongoing basis.
I’ve always wanted to build a performing arts center for my hometown’s high school, but I’d also be looking at making a broader impact. For example, my son was born with a cleft lip, and Smile Train, which performs cleft repairs in impoverished countries, is a favorite charity of mine. I would also establish scholarship funds, maybe for students attending law school with families, like I did.
What historical figures would you like to meet?
Given the chance, I would choose to eavesdrop on a conversation between three of the most important mathematicians and physicists of all time: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Richard Feynman.
Isaac Newton formulated the laws of motion and gravity in the 1600s, and when he ran into problems he could not solve he invented a branch of calculus. Albert Einstein developed the world’s most famous equation, E = mc2, developed the general theory of relativity by a simple thought experiment, and discovered the photoelectric effect, which is one of the pillars of quantum theory.
Richard Feynman, one of the most important physicists of the 20th century, was a key to the Manhattan Project, developed quantum electrodynamics, and invented Feynman Diagrams of the action of subatomic particles, which have revolutionized theoretical physics. (He also was fired by the University of Wisconsin as an assistant professor of physics in 1945.) A fellow physicist, when asked to describe Feynman’s methods, said, “You write down the problem. You think very hard. Then you write down the answer.”
Maybe I could be a witness to those prodigious minds solving the Theory of Everything by integrating quantum mechanics with Einstein’s General Relativity theory.
What was the best or oddest experience you’ve had on a business trip in China?
A number of years ago, I was on a business trip to Beijing with a couple of hours to kill before my return flight to Chicago. I decided to take a quick trip back to the Forbidden City, a place I had not been since law school. It was a bright, quiet, winter Saturday, with a sort of hanging Beijing sun at midday. I queued up to buy a ticket to the right of a group of young tour guides. I remembered the last time I was there – 10 years before – when I had hired a guide to show me around, a retired Chinese professor of botany. He was very knowledgeable about the history of the place, and, in particular, the gardens of the inner court.
In any event, I bought my ticket, turned around, and was thinking about where I should go, when all of a sudden there before me was the very same Chinese botanist who had showed me around 10 years before. I got a chill. He showed me around again that day, but this time directed my attention to other aspects of the Forbidden City. He asked what I did. I told him I was a lawyer. “Do you want to understand the essence of Chinese law?,” he said with a smile. “Look at that sun-dial and that grain scale. Those represent the essence of Chinese law!” That was sort of my Bill Murray Caddyshack moment in China – “big hitter, the Lama - long.”
Your practice focuses on Wisconsin and multistate sales tax audit management and resolution, tax controversy, and consulting in sales/use tax compliance procedures. What drew you to that practice area?
Early in my career at a Madison law firm I had the opportunity to work with a client going through a contentious sales tax audit and was struck by the disparity in power between the taxpayer and the taxing authorities. The clients I work with are good people who try to do the right thing, but sales and use tax laws (especially in a multistate arena) are incredibly complex and difficult to follow.
Departments of Revenue have significant statutory and regulatory power, and an unrepresented taxpayer undergoing an audit is at a substantial disadvantage. In addition, because errors discovered during sales and use tax audits involve repeated transactions over a four-year-audit period, a taxpayer’s sales tax liability, coupled with arguably punitive negligence penalties and statutory late-interest assessments, can imperil the continued viability of even a good-sized business. I like fighting for the underdog – and in sales and use tax audits, the taxpayer is always the underdog.
What brought you to the practice of law?
I had really never thought of going to law school prior to obtaining my undergraduate degree. I graduated from college with an accounting degree and then worked as an accountant for a couple of years when I began to itch for a new challenge. One day I was in a university bookstore and somehow ended up in the section with study aids for graduate school admission tests. I flipped through an LSAT study aid and decided to buy it. I took it home and flipped through it some more and out of curiosity decided to take one of the practice exams.
Out of further curiosity, I signed up to take the LSAT and sat for the exam without really preparing or taking it very seriously. At the time, I didn’t have much in the way of savings, and told myself that I would apply only to one law school, Wisconsin, because its in-state tuition was all I felt I could afford. The deal I made with myself was that if I was accepted at Wisconsin I would go to law school, and if I was rejected I would drop the whole idea. Luckily, Wisconsin admitted me, and the $20 or so I spent on the impulse purchase of an LSAT study aid ended up being an excellent investment.
If you weren’t practicing law, what would you be doing?
I would try my hand at becoming a professional baseball umpire. I have umpired baseball at different levels since high school and still enjoy the experience. The rules of baseball are complex and every pitch, hit, and game is a learning experience.
There is nothing more rewarding than having the ability to apply a century-old, obscure rule to a play happening in the moment. It’s even more rewarding when you get it right.
In my short time practicing, I have found the skills that make a good umpire are the same skills that a good lawyer possesses. You must have the confidence to make and defend important decisions. The only way to gain that confidence is hard work off the field – learning the rules and running hypothetical scenarios in your mind. When the call is made, right or wrong, an umpire must clear his mind, dig in, and treat the next pitch with the same importance as the last. In my three years of experience as an attorney, it seems that good lawyers do the same.
I would also enjoy getting paid to watch baseball and having some time off during deer-hunting season.