McGeorge School of Law

Profile: Steven A. Merksamer

Steven A. Merksamer
Steven A. Merksamer

Class of 1975

Sr. Government Law Partner, Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP
Area of Practice:
Capital Lawyering
Undergraduate: Claremont McKenna College

At the age of 13, Steven A. Merksamer, '75, stood outside the California state Capitol with other Youth for Kennedy members at a rally for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, a rally sign in one hand and a political banner across his chest.

Vice presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson walked over, patted Merksamer on the head and told him he was doing a good job. It was one of Merksamer's first encounters with politics and helped create a lifelong passion for politics and public policy.

Once described by a newspaper as a "political whiz kid," Merksamer is the senior government law partner of the Northern California law firm of Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP, which started the specialty area of political law in California during the 1970s. Merksamer became a Republican in college when he became disenchanted with the Democrats' position on taxes and foreign policy.

He got his start working in politics and government during college, as a Youth for Reagan chairman for Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial campaign. He also worked for the state controller candidate as his driver.

Those experiences led him to an internship with the minority leader in the California Assembly while he was a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College. When the leader became speaker, he asked Merksamer to join his staff. That experience led to a job with then-Gov. Reagan and Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke.

Merksamer had no intention of attending law school. But after working in the legislative and executive branches in the Capitol for nearly four years, Ed Meese, the governor's chief of staff and future U.S. attorney general, encouraged him to go to law school.

After graduating, Merksamer realized he was not taken with traditional law. But he was fascinated by the intersection of politics and government. He saw a need for lawyers with this expertise and thought the best way to gain it would be to work in the state attorney general's office.

He started there as a civil servant deputy attorney general and later came to the attention of the attorney general, George Deukmejian, who promoted him to be special assistant attorney general, one of the office's senior positions. Merksamer chaired Deukmejian's transition team after he was elected governor and became his chief of staff. After four years, he decided he had reached the pinnacle of appointed office. He could run for office or do something different. With a wife and two young children, Merksamer opted to join his current firm, where he was made partner immediately.

"I went into the next best thing, which is a law firm in which politics and government are intertwined with the practice of law on a daily, and even hourly basis," he says.

As a senior partner, he heads the Sacramento office. He provides strategic advice to clients and colleagues about major litigation and is heavily involved in the state initiatives the firm takes on.

Merksamer describes his firm as a "mini AG's office for the private sector" with a 50-state political law compliance practice representing some of the country's largest companies. It is involved in nearly every major state initiative, he says.

Merksamer's career in government and politics includes advising state and national political leaders. That includes former vice presidential candidate and Congressman Jack Kemp and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he helped prep for his debates.

In addition to the McGeorge Capital Center board, Merksamer serves on the Public Policy Institute of California and the California Chamber of Commerce boards, among others.

Merksamer says his interest in politics is motivated by serving the public good. "Very few people can earn a living doing what they love to do," he says. "I'm blessed in the sense that I've been able to do that."