Zoe Baird Just Might Take Care Of Business

Bill Clinton may or may not prove to be, as he has promised, a different kind of Democrat. But Zoe Baird almost certainly will be a different kind of Democratic U.S. Attorney General. In the past, Democratic chiefs of the Justice Dept. often have been labeled liberal business-bashers. But Baird, who has served since 1990 as general counsel of Aetna Life & Casualty Co., may suit business much better.

The 40-year-old Baird is expected to be more pragmatist than ideologue. Indeed, a lawyer close to the Clinton transition team says that her selection was a snub to liberal groups that had been rooting for Washington lawyer Brooksley E. Born--who would have been a standard-bearer of liberal causes. Baird, in contrast, "will be a moderate Attorney General with whom both parties would feel comfortable," says Victoria Toensing, a former Justice Dept. criminal-division deputy during the Reagan Administration.

If she doesn't alter the stands she espoused in her current posts, Baird may give surprising support to business in several key areas--ranging from easing tough corporate-sentencing guidelines to dealing with such vexing problems as product-liability litigation.

REFORMER. As the top lawyer at Hartford-based Aetna, Baird supported curbing excesses in civil litigation. She has backed changing the rules of discovery to limit costly pretrial maneuvering and favored making the tort laws more uniform (table).

Baird's resume spans government, private practice, and the corporate world. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley's Boalt School of Law, she worked in the Carter Justice Dept. and White House. She then joined the Washington office of Los Angeles-based O'Melveny & Myers, whose chairman is Warren Christopher, Clinton's transition co-chairman and nominee for Secretary of State. From there, Baird moved in 1986 to General Electric Co.'s legal department, where she drafted a program to help the company uncover and prevent fraud. The daughter of a union organizer and a jewelry designer, Baird grew up in Seattle. She is married to Paul D. Gewirtz, a constitutional law professor at Yale Law School, who is mentioned often as a possible judicial nominee of Clinton's. In off hours, Baird enjoys going to the theater.

Critics say that Baird, who has never been a prosecutor, will be at a disadvantage at Justice, which is filled with prosecutors. And she recently has focused little on constitutional and civil rights issues. But William T. Coleman, a Ford Administration Transportation Secretary, says Baird worked on key civil rights cases at O'Melveny & Myers and successfully defended both the firm's clients and GE from criminal charges.

But it is Baird's familiarity with business that heartens executives. "She has seen the other side of it," says Peter D. Zeughauser, general counsel for the Irvine Co., a California real estate company. Indeed, executives hope that Baird will make real inroads in reducing what they see as unfair civil litigation.

Under state tort law, for instance, companies sometimes must compensate injured consumers, even if there was no proof that their products caused the injury. In the past, Baird has supported alternatives to the courts for paying victims--reforms mirroring ideas trumpeted by Vice-President Dan Quayle. "I suppose she will understand that business is not the incarnation of evil," says Lawrence A. Salibra, senior counsel at Cleveland-based Alcan Aluminum Corp.

DIFFERENT CLIENT. Business also wants backing in its drive to relax federal sentencing guidelines, which hold companies responsible for employees' wrongdoing. Currently, a company can face stiff penalties for an employee's violations even if senior managers weren't aware of them. Corporate lawyers argue that they shouldn't be on the hook for actions they know nothing about.

Of course, when Baird takes the helm at Justice, she will be representing a different client. Clinton, who received hefty campaign contributions from the American Trial Lawyers Assn., supports easy access to the courts and may nix Quayle-like civil-justice reforms that Baird has supported in the past. "She will weigh things differently when she is representing the public," says Benjamin R. Civiletti, a Carter Administration Attorney General. But this time around, a Democratic Attorney General may at least put business' concerns on the scale.

      At General Electric, Baird designed a program to detect and discipline 
      wrongdoing. She may give brownie points to companies that run such programs, 
      even while pursuing cases against them
      Baird wants to curb excessive litigation. As Attorney General, she may work to 
      limit pretrial discovery and adopt uniform rules for corporate liability
      To lower corporate legal costs, Baird favors replacing hourly billing with 
      negotiated fees. She may want federal agencies to adopt similar tactics when 
      hiring law firms
      DATA: BW