Women have made a lot of progress in the legal and corporate worlds, Maura Abeln Smith says, but they’re still having trouble getting into the top jobs. That hasn’t been a problem for Smith herself. Last month, she became the new legal chief at PepsiCo, Inc., her fourth GC gig in two decades. But Smith says she’s been successful because she’s had some extraordinary opportunities—key among them, being one of the first women to win a Rhodes Scholarship.

Smith, 55, became executive vice president of government affairs, general counsel, and corporate secretary at PepsiCo on May 5. She oversees a legal and government affairs department with more than 500 employees, including 165 lawyers worldwide. Larry Thompson, the previous general counsel at the Purchase, New York-based company, retired to take a teaching position at the University of Georgia Law School.

Smith says she initially didn’t intend to become a lawyer. She majored in economics at Vassar College and Oxford University. But the Rhodes scholarship led to a full ride at the University of Miami Law School, which led to her first legal job at Steel Hector & Davis, the now-defunct Miami law firm. In 1991 Ben Heineman, Jr., then the legal chief at General Electric Company and a Rhodes Scholar himself, hired Smith for her first in-house job, as general counsel of GE’s plastics division. Smith followed that with stints as general counsel at Owens Corning (where she also served as chief restructuring officer) and International Paper Company.

Smith recently talked with us about the path of her career, the opportunities for women lawyers, and the continuing relevance of Ben Heineman. An edited version of our conversation follows.

CorpCounsel: While you weren’t part of the first generation of women who entered the law, you were still a pioneer in many ways. What’s the biggest change for women in the profession you’ve seen during your career?

Maura Abeln Smith: Things have become much more inclusive. There are more women than ever before practicing law at all levels—in government, in corporations, and in law firms.

But I do not think there has been as much progress as there could have been, insofar as women rising to the top levels of the partnership and general counsel ranks. I think the generation behind me will have better success in reaching the top jobs.

CC: Have you been satisfied with the opportunities you’ve had in your own career?

MAS: I have. But I had an unusual opportunity that a lot of women have not had. I had the good fortune to win a Rhodes Scholarship the first year that women were able to apply. In 1977 I went to Oxford University for two years and did a graduate degree in economics. And as a result of that, I was able to get a full scholarship and stipend to go to law school, and as a result of that, I was able to get a fantastic job at a law firm in Miami.

Doors opened up for me because of the Rhodes Scholarship, in particular my position at GE. In many respects, I would have been a needle in a haystack but for that one opportunity that changed the trajectory of my life.

CC: I knew you were one of the first female Rhodes Scholars, but I didn’t know you applied the first year that women were able to apply.

MAS: Yes. I’m the oldest living woman Rhodes Scholar! [laughs] It was an inflection point, because women a few years before me—five years before me, women who are now 60—did not have opportunities like that. It was a magical opportunity, and it did make a difference.

CC: How have things changed for women in the corporate world?

MAS: At the top levels of corporations, there are only a few women CEOs. I now have the privilege to be working for one of them, Indra Nooyi, at PepsiCo. This is the first time I’ve ever had a woman CEO.

CC: You studied economics at Vassar and Oxford. How did you select that as a major?

MAS: I preferred to major in English, but my parents encouraged me to major in something that had more practical application. At the time—1973, 1974—they envisioned my highest career aspiration would be to be a teacher of some sort. And they thought that being an English teacher wasn’t as potentially lucrative as doing something else. They encouraged me to at least major in a hard science or economics so that I would have a better opportunity when I graduated to get a job. At that time, people were graduating from college with no jobs.

CC: Right, it was the mid-seventies, it was the middle of a recession.

MAS: And the price of oil quadrupled in 1974, and we had a whole series of economic challenges in the world. My parents were quite worried that when I graduated from college—even though I had had a scholarship at Vassar—that I wouldn’t be able to find a job. At that point they didn’t envision me going to law school or anything like that.

My father was a German immigrant who came to this country in the early 1920. He did not graduate from high school. My mother went back to college when I was eight to get a degree, and became a caseworker. While my parents were not highly educated, they encouraged me to go to college and learn as much as I could. They were very supportive. I think my mother was one of the original women’s liberationists.

CC: You were a member of Ben Heineman’s all-star team at GE. Did you realize at the time that you were part of a legal department that was changing the nature of in-house legal practice?

MAS: I think I was, because I was recruited with the understanding that Ben was searching for law firm partners in various practice areas who would be able to bring GE’s work inside. And that was specifically my mission, to redesign and reorganize the legal team for GE Plastics.

CC: In a 2001 Corporate Counsel article, you told us, “Sometimes when I get stuck, I think, ‘What would Ben do?’” Do you still do that?

MAS: [Laughs] Yes, all the time. I credit him with a lot of my successes, and I do not blame him for any of my failures.

CC: What do you consider to be your top accomplishment at International Paper?

MAS: I would say the hiring of an outstanding global legal team. I’ve recruited probably 80-85 percent of the lawyers who are there. The ones that I inherited who stayed with me are terrific as well. We were able to bring in-house a lot of work that was being sent to outside counsel. We reduced the total legal spending for the company by more than 50 percent.

CC: How were you hired by PepsiCo?

MAS: The company hired a recruiter, who reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in being interviewed. After some serious thought about whether I wanted to leave International Paper at that juncture in my career, I said that I would certainly be honored to come talk to the senior people at PepsiCo.

CC: What’s at the top of your to-do list at PepsiCo?

MAS: I have big shoes to fill here with Larry Thompson retiring. Following a deputy attorney general of the United States is, in and of itself, daunting. He’s left the law department in great shape. He’s got very good people. They’re managing the issues quite well.

I think that my challenge is to develop the people who are here, and to have the department transform itself to support the company, as the company transforms itself over the next 10 to 15 years. Things have changed so quickly and so rapidly around the world, and PepsiCo is a global company, with 47 percent of its revenue from outside the United States.

CC: What are your favorite PepsiCo products?

MAS: I love, love, love all of the Sun Chips. If I had to pick one drink, I’d have to say my favorites are the SoBe waters. I also like Diet Mountain Dew. I like all of the Quaker products. As a kid, I enjoyed Life cereal. And my mother used to say that I was a part of ‘The Pepsi Generation.’ So here I am.