It may not match the ascent of an F-35 fighter jet for sheer visceral spectacle, but Lockheed Martin Corporation‘s Maryanne Lavan made her own successful vertical take-off in late June, ascending to the ranks of senior vice president and general counsel. The Bethesda, Md.-based aerospace and weapons giant named the 51-year-old Lavan as successor to James Comey, who took off for a hedge fund management position in Connecticut.

In the two decades since Lavan joined Lockheed, she’s cruised like a Hellfire missile up the corporate chain of command. She worked stints as assistant general counsel, vice president and GC for Lockheed’s electronic systems business area, vice president of ethics and business conduct, and — since 2007 — as vice president of internal audit.

“Officially, I’m back in the legal department,” said Lavan, who will now report directly to Lockheed CEO Bob Stevens — surely by way of high-tech, secure satellite communications. “I’m looking forward to being reunited with my colleagues in legal,” she said.

Lavan assumes the general counsel mantle just as Lockheed, which employs about 136,000 people, must contend with the prospect of being placed on a fiscal diet by the Pentagon. The company reported first quarter profits of $547 million in April — a 17 percent drop compared with its earnings of $666 million for the same quarter of the prior year.

“Like at all corporations, there are business pressures,” Lavan said of her new role, citing the challenge to make the company as efficient as possible.

In the top job she will trail in the wake of James Comey’s aircraft carrier-sized profile. Comey, a former U.S. deputy attorney general from late 2003 until August 2005, is best known for his riveting 2007 Senate testimony, where he recounted his dramatic sickbed showdown with Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel, and Andrew Card, then White House chief of staff.

The two White House aides had attempted to persuade an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on the National Security Agency‘s secret domestic eavesdropping program, which Comey opposed. He won the sickbed confrontation.

Lavan has her own claim to fame as the first woman to take up Lockheed’s top lawyer post. But she isn’t the first woman to take the helm at a global security giant, not even the first in June 2010. Lockheed is coasting in the contrails of fellow industry behemoth Northrop Grumman Corporation, which announced Sheila Cheston’s move to vice president and general counsel last month.

Of her new post, Lavan said, “I just see it as a continuation of my career and opportunities.” No shattered glass ceilings here, as far as she’s concerned.

Lavan’s climb in corporate altitude began with a magna cum laude-winning spell at the State University of New York at Albany. She received her law degree from American University’s Washington College of Law, where she was a member of the Law Review. Before landing at Lockheed in 1990, Lavan zeroed in on white-collar crime matters and specialized in government contracts in the D.C. office of now-defunct San Francisco-based firm Pettit & Martin.

And beyond helping shape Lockheed’s ethical culture into one that citizens of the world’s military superpower can be proud of, Lavan is on the Ethics Committee of the American Bar Association’s Public Contract Law Section, and sits on the board of directors of the national nonprofit Character Education Partnership. Lockheed’s CEO Stevens cited Lavan’s “good judgment and unquestionable integrity” in the press release announcing her new role.

Charlie Mead can be contacted at cmead@alm.com.

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