Steven Merkel
Steven Merkel (Jonathan Hawkins Photography)

For Steven Merkel, Tuesday was Day 42 in his latest deployment.

Like a good military man, he’s been counting the days in his Big Law career, which kicked off in a high-powered position—chief operating officer of 600-lawyer Barnes & Thornburg.

Merkel brings with him a distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Army, where the now retired colonel most recently served as chief of operations for the United States Military Academy, commonly known as West Point for the military outpost where it is based some 58 miles north of New York City.

Within the past month, Merkel has been undergoing a crash course in the business of law and the politics of law firm life, where the chain of command is dispersed among partners who hold varying degrees of power. At Barnes & Thornburg, that gives Merkel about 225 partners to answer to each day.

Merkel said he has spent late nights and weekends studying law firm profitability, compensation schedules and other aspects of managing an Am Law 100 firm. He hasn’t lost his military-like loyalty to mission; it has just shifted focus.

“I have a desire to go to bed every single day smarter than I woke up. And so far I have,” Merkel said. “I want our firm managing partner and all of the partners in this firm, whether it’s in the next week, month or year, to look back and say, ‘You know what, I don’t know exactly what we were thinking when we hired Steve, but I sure as hell am glad we did.’ That thought crosses my mind every single day.”

There has been a learning curve for partners, too.

Merkel’s bio is rare if not unique among Big Law executives. For instance, he lists as an accomplishment rescuing seven hostages who were being held south of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. After some lawyers who had read his bio were hesitant to ask him about that experience, Merkel said he wanted the opportunity to explain it to his new colleagues.

So, Merkel told them how he and three others cleared an alley and entered a house where members of a military police patrol had recently been taken after an ambush. Merkel’s patrol freed the seven hostages, including a roughly 10-year-old boy.

“They looked at me like I’m half crazy,” Merkel said. “It’s hard to explain, I think, to other people why you would place yourself at risk for somebody that is not like family.”

While Big Law may be a new mission for Merkel, he is no stranger to running the operations of large, geographically dispersed organizations.

He spent a year in Kabul, Afghanistan, as chief of operations for a multinational security force that put him in charge of about 5,000 soldiers from 15 countries with a budget of nearly $1 billion. Before that, Merkel was stateside, serving as chief of operations for the U.S. First Army, where he oversaw 11,000 people spread across the country and managed a $425 million budget.

In building high-performing teams in those management roles, Merkel said he has built a view of teamwork that relies on three fundamental principles: Communicate, cooperate and contribute. As for leadership, Merkel said the most important trait is humility.

“It’s the idea that I’m not going to ask you to do something I wouldn’t do myself,” Merkel said. “That humility has always helped me deal with the strongest personalities. You’d be amazed how often what can be sharp edges on those personalities very quickly round off when they know the person they’re talking to is candid, genuine and trustworthy and in this case is genuinely committed to the firm.”

Merkel, a native of southwest Indiana, said he has found a number of similarities between the law and the military in his month-and-a-half at Indianapolis-based Barnes & Thornburg, which named Robert Grand as its new managing partner in 2014. One of those similarities is the high demands of clients in both areas.

“I’ll go so far as to say that the expectation is we’re not going to lose,” Merkel said. “A soldier could no more show up on the battlefield than could an attorney show up in a courtroom and say, ‘I’m just going to wing it.’ Heck no. That’s not what our clients demand. That’s not what we’re going to give them. The fact of the matter is we are in the business of getting results. And that’s what our clients deserve. And that’s the same whether you’re in the military or in a law firm.”

The high expectations in both environments can lead to a reluctance to change, said Merkel, pictured right exhorting some cadets at the annual Army-Navy college football game.

What has worked for the military in the past, like what has worked for lawyers in the past—those at Barnes & Thornburg are no stranger to change—is what they are most likely to do going forward. As a leader charged with driving change in the military, Merkel would often implement small pilot programs to show and explain how a change may benefit his soldiers. He said explaining change to lawyers in a straightforward way can work, too.

“Oftentimes, what you have to do is first explain logically in a way that a soldier or attorney could understand the impact that this change is going to have on them: Will this increase my profitability? Will this make me more lethal?” Merkel said. “That gives you a ticket for the next stage.”

Merkel said he and his wife were looking to move back to the Midwest from West Point. He said he was prepared to leave behind character traits in the military that he valued most: Trust, loyalty, the willingness to work hard and dedication to a singular mission.

But he was pleasantly surprised that the people at Barnes & Thornburg shared those qualities and were “exactly like the group of people I served in the military,” he said. It’s safe to say that Merkel has brought that sense of loyalty to his new firm as well.

“I consider myself to be the biggest ambassador of this firm,” Merkel said. “And if I meet a stranger on the street, I’m going to find a way that within five minutes of talking to you that you know I belong to the Barnes & Thornburg team. That’s how proud I am of this firm and these people.”