Sr. Political Law Partner, Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP
Year Graduated: 1971
Chip Nielsen has been actively involved in California state politics and government for over four decades, having been a campaign manager and a political law advisor to numerous politicians and government leaders as well as having served in senior government positions himself, such as being the Chief Administrative Officer for the California Assembly, the Assistant Deputy State Controller and Chief of Staff to the Lieutenant Governor. He is an honors graduate from Yale University, a Coro Fellow and received his law degree from the McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific.
Chip Nielsen, '71, an early practitioner of political law, couldn't find employment in any San Francisco law firm when he was starting out. Nielsen had the credentials - a prestigious nine-month Coro public affairs fellowship, experience working in state politics and government, and a law degree from McGeorge School of Law.
He is now senior political law partner and strategist for Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP, with offices in Sacramento and San Rafael, where he works. The firm is one of the first political law firms in California, earning it the nickname "granddaddy of the political law firms."
Nielsen got his start in politics after leaving the Army. He joined the Hugh Flournoy for state controller campaign. Flournoy won and Nielsen became the assistant deputy state controller. He also enrolled in McGeorge at night.
By day, Nielsen next worked as chief administrative officer of the Assembly and then chief of staff and campaign manager for Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke. He moved to San Francisco to try practicing law after passing the bar. After six months, he started a solo practice and also secured volunteer law work for the state Republican Party helping it comply with federal and state laws regulating campaigns.
Soon after, a small firm hired him to do commercial law and litigation part-time. It was 1972, a watershed year that created a new focus on ethics in government and politics thanks to Watergate. In 1974, California voters passed the Political Reform Act, enacting tough regulations governing campaign contributions and expenditures, establishing conflict-of-interest rules for government officials and financial disclosure and prohibition rules for lobbyists. "
All of a sudden, there was a need for a political lawyer in California," he says. "I stepped forward and said, 'I'm ready.'"
At the time, Nielsen was practicing election law. Election law covers the laws that govern how people are elected. But when he started helping public officials, lobbyists and companies comply with conflict-of-interest, lobbying and campaign laws, "election law just didn't work. I started telling people I was a political law lawyer."
The term caught on. Nielsen became an associate and then partner at Dobbs & Nielsen. In the mid-1980s, he split from the firm and formed his own, taking most of his colleagues. When the state Political Reform Act passed and the Fair Political Practices Commission was formed in 1974, no one in Sacramento politics knew how the law and commission would work. Nielsen approached a Sacramento company, teaming up with McGeorge alum Lance H. Olson, '77, to write and publish the first political law textbook in California about state and federal political law.
Nielsen used to do a lot of work for the state Republican Party. The firm no longer represents candidates. Now he focuses on trade associations and corporations. He practices campaign finance law, pay to play law, as well as initiative, lobbying, conflict of interest and nonprofit law. The firm also focuses on government and administrative law, trial, appellate and administrative agency litigation.
Nielsen enjoys the wide array of issues he confronts daily and the people he works with. "They're really good people practicing in this area that are either on the same side or against you."
Especially the colleagues at his firm, he says. They are "all people you'd want for your next-door neighbors."