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William McKee, a longtime Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner and former firm chairman, died after a long illness Saturday. He was 78. As Orrick’s chairman from 1984 to 1986, McKee is credited with helping to launch the firm’s New York office – its first outside California and now its largest – in 1984. During his 38 years with the firm, he also started Orrick’s tax practice. “He was the perfectly rational business lawyer with astounding analytical ability, and no tolerance for fools or dissembling,” said Orrick San Francisco tax partner Paul Sax. “He was an exceptionally shrewd, astute business negotiator.” McKee, who started at the firm in 1950, also helped modernize the firm’s business practices during his term as chair, refining time-keeping methods and merit-based compensation. “He worked to make sure that what we did and how we organized ourselves fit the reality and not history or convention or the way we wished things were,” said Ralph Baxter Jr., the firm’s current chairman. “His philosophy contributed to the way Orrick is positioned and to making the changes we made over the past 15 years.” McKee was friend and counsel to Ernest Gallo for several decades and helped turn his modest business into the world’s largest winery, according to Sax. McKee was similarly close to Herb and Marion Sandler, founders of Golden West Financial Corp., and was a director at the company. “He was a stern but exceptionally fair task master,” Sax said. “His clients trusted his judgment, as did his partners.” Baxter praised McKee’s vision and dedication to the firm as an institution. Days before McKee’s death, the current chairman quoted the former one at a meeting of all new associates worldwide. “This firm is a trust. It came to us from Orrick, Dahlquist, Neff, Herrington, Rowley & Sutcliffe and many others,” Baxter said, repeating words McKee had spoken in 1984. “Our charge is to strengthen it, to add to its traditions and its spirit, and to pass it along to other hands as capable as those from which we received it. If we can do that, then we have been faithful to our predecessors, to our profession and to you who come after us.” McKee is survived by his sister Margaret Seder; children Rebecca, Harper and Joshua; daughters-in-law Karen and Katie; grandchildren Elena, Kelsey, Benjamin, Julia, Gabrielle and William; and great-grandchild Rainie. McKee’s wife, Lyn Messenkopf, died in 1997. The family is planning a Dec. 11 celebration of McKee’s life. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Democratic National Committee prior to Tuesday and to Planned Parenthood of Contra Costa County thereafter.

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