WASHINGTON -- A woman lawyer whose boss says she is " hell of a friend to have in a fight" is President-elect Bill Clinton's surprise choice to lead a government department that has been in turmoil for years as the action arm of deeply conservative White House political causes.
Zoe Baird -- her first name is pronounced "ZOH-ee" -- is the 40-year-old corporate attorney designated by Mr. Clinton to become the nation's first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and thus as the chief of the beleaguered Justice Department.
A former government official with some of the best Washington legal connections and with no public identity as a leader of women's rights causes, Ms. Baird appeared to fit well into Mr. Clinton's seeming preference for female appointees who have worked both in government and corporate America and not as highly visible liberal activists.
Although Ms. Baird is described by various friends as "a liberal Democrat," none of the leaders of women's rights groups contacted yesterday knew any details about what causes she might have worked for or helped to promote.
Several who said they knew Ms. Baird personally said they were unaware of any outside activities not directly involved with the legal affairs of her company, Aetna Life & Casualty Co.
Ronald C. Compton, Aetna's board chairman and chief executive officer, where Ms. Baird is general counsel, led a chorus of praise for her talents.
Besides describing her as someone he would want on his side in a fight, Mr. Compton said: "She's brilliant, a terrific lawyer, and a tremendous litigator. If you want something done right and quickly, Zoe is your person."
Ms. Baird had been promoted for some job in the Clinton administration by a coalition of women's organizations, but few if any leaders of those groups expected her to get the attorney general's post. Most thought she would be named by Mr. Clinton as his own White House counsel.
Two leaders of activist organizations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had heard suggestions that Mr. Clinton chose Ms. Baird deliberately to avoid picking a notable women's rights activist, especially after growing angry at those groups earlier this week for pressuring him to name more women to his Cabinet. He dismissed them as "bean counters."
Ms. Baird formerly worked in the same law firm with Warren M. Christopher, the head of the Clinton transition team and now designated to be the new secretary of state. Ms. Baird also had close connections with William T. Coleman, a prominent Republican and big-time Washington lawyer in that same firm.
In addition, she had worked in the Carter White House as a legal aide to former White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler -- one of Washington's true "super lawyers" and a frequent adviser to Democratic presidents.
Last summer, she and her husband, Yale law professor Paul Gewirtz, became acquainted during their Martha's Vineyard vacation with corporate lawyer Vernon Jordan, a key adviser to Mr. Clinton.
Ms. Baird worked in the Justice Department in the Carter administration before moving over to the White House.
"My first job as a practicing lawyer," she said in Little Rock, Ark., yesterday, "was in the Justice Department and I've never forgotten how proud I felt each day as I went to work knowing that my only mission was to do my best for my country."
Later, after going into private law practice here, she became a staff lawyer for General Electric Co. at its headquarters in Fairfield, Conn. Yesterday, GE's board chairman and chief executive officer, John F. Welch, described Ms. Baird as "very smart, a very quick study and a person of the highest integrity."
Two years ago, she moved to the top lawyer's position at Aetna.