WASHINGTON — In introducing his surprise nominee to be attorney general, President-elect Bill Clinton described Zoe Baird as a "dynamic, talented and innovative lawyer" who is "tough, tenacious and gifted."
But then, he is certainly not the first top executive or senior attorney to be impressed with the 40-year-old Baird. Although she is not widely known publicly, she has been acclaimed as a rising star in legal circles and by government insiders.
In just the 15 years since she graduated from law school at UC Berkeley, she has served as a clerk to a federal judge, a legal adviser to the Justice Department, a White House legal adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, a litigator in a top Washington law firm and a chief counselor for General Electric Co.
For the past two years, she has been the senior vice president and general counsel for Aetna Life & Casualty in Hartford, Conn., the first woman to serve as general counsel at a major American corporation, according to Clinton.
Those corporate connections prompted some questions about Baird on Thursday from public interest groups.
Yet Baird has some influential admirers, such as Lloyd N. Cutler, Carter's White House counsel, and Warren Christopher, Clinton's choice to be secretary of state and the former managing partner of the Los Angeles firm of O'Melveny & Myers. After leaving the Carter White House, Baird worked in O'Melveny's Washington office.
Nonetheless, until Wednesday evening, she was not mentioned publicly for attorney general, although her name had surfaced as a candidate for White House counsel.
If confirmed, Baird will be not only the first woman to serve as the nation's chief law enforcement officer but also one of the youngest. In the modern era, only the late Robert F. Kennedy, at age 35, and Ramsey Clark, 39, were younger.
Friends and fellow lawyers describe her as a soft-spoken, cordial and innovative legal strategist, someone who often devised settlements when others might have provoked further litigation.
She came to Aetna with no background in insurance law, but within three months she was able to settle a long-running antitrust suit against the insurance giant and six other firms.
"She was particularly impressive in helping reconcile differences," said James W. Walker Jr., general counsel at Cigna Corp.
She also attracted attention in legal circles earlier this year by advocating that lawyers move toward "value billing," based on what they accomplish, and away from the traditional billing at hourly rates.
Others note, however, that she has no real experience in criminal law--a high-profile part of the Justice Department's terrain--and that she has not proven herself as an administrator of a large organization.
But many of her predecessors, including current Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, had no criminal law experience before taking the post. Clinton aides are said to be searching for lawyers with a strong criminal law background to serve in the department's No. 2 and No. 3 jobs.
Some liberal, public interest lawyers in Washington said they were troubled by the nomination because Aetna was a leading force earlier this year in trying to push through Congress a bill that would limit corporate liability for defective products.
"Aetna is not the most progressive company," said one lawyer who asked not to be identified.
Others said they were surprised by the nomination because Baird has only about three years of government service, while the rest of her career has been spent defending corporations.
"You can say there are unhappy rumblings in the public interest community," said a second lawyer. "Most people were saying today: 'How is Zoe Baird the best-qualified person to be attorney general?' She's like Clarence Thomas. She'll need lots of on-the-job training.' "
Nevertheless, Baird's nomination won instant praise from top attorneys Thursday who said she has already shown both unusual legal ability and a sensitivity to the poor and to minorities.
Talbot C. D'Alemberte, past president of the American Bar Assn., called her a rising star of the legal profession who even as a corporate counsel advocated providing legal aid for the poor.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman Jr. worked with Baird at O'Melveny & Myers and described her as "a superb lawyer who understands how the federal government works. That's a real rarity."
Appearing with Clinton in Little Rock, Ark., Baird said that under her leadership the Justice Department "will be firm in its prosecution of crime, will be guided by the rule of law and will be committed to the principled and deliberate advancement of civil rights, environmental protection and economic fairness."
Baird was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up near Seattle, the daughter of a labor union official and a jewelry designer. "My parents were very active in politics," she said in a June interview with the American Lawyer magazine, "so I grew up in a home where there was a lot of vibrant dinner-party conversation."