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To use the word “accomplished” to describe female general counsel at America’s largest corporations would be an understatement. The women who have made it to the top boast flawless resumes and daunting titles. It wasn’t always that way. These now-powerful attorneys started at the bottom of the heap, just like everyone else. But just how close to the bottom? We asked a few about the worst job they’d ever had. Their answers yielded a remarkably coherent picture: Whether they’re washing dishes or handling a complex international deal, they are hardworking, good-humored, quick-thinking, and full of integrity — and very, very determined. It’s no surprise that in most cases, their entry into the world of work was inauspicious. There are few positions for youngsters that come with a personal assistant and a driver. Jennifer Pileggi, now the legal chief of CNF Inc., battled baked-on messes during a stint as a dishwasher in a commercial kitchen. While an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Joyce Haag spent a summer microfilming catalogs. In her case, poetic justice was served: This past March, she was appointed general counsel of Eastman Kodak Company. The jobs sometimes offered unexpected challenges. Maura Abeln Smith, GC of International Paper Co., recalls: “In college, I was a waitress at a pancake house … very briefly, because the pancakes had a way of slipping off the plates.” Then there’s Patricia Hatler, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.’s chief legal and governance officer, who nabbed a job at a YMCA teaching adults to swim, only to find herself assigned to teach synchronized swimming to Esther Williams wanna-bes. Menial work offered Laura Schumacher, the new general counsel at Abbott Laboratories, some invaluable lessons. She recalls that her worst job was picking blueberries. “It meant long, hot days for very little money,” she says. “But it taught me the value of hard work and financial responsibility.” For most of these women, the tough grind of graduate school looked more appealing after seeing the alternative. Gloria Santona, now the GC of McDonald’s Corp., had a job in a personnel department after graduating from college. “I worked exclusively on employee disciplinary matters,” she says. “I was only 22, and I had to figure out how to fire a 50-year-old who would fall asleep at his desk.” Santona says that working on the saddest cases was no fun. And, she adds wryly, “It drove me to law school.” Predictably, these women occasionally ran into sexual stereotypes. Southwest Airlines Co.’s Deborah Ackerman worked as a law clerk during the summer after her first year of law school. The firm’s only woman in this post, she was assigned to cover the switchboard when the receptionist was away. “The male law clerks were exempt from this duty,” she remembers. “A senior partner told me: ‘A woman does a better job of answering the phone.’” Andrea Zopp, top legal officer at Sears Holding Corp., notes that, one way or another, the positions were learning experiences. “Each of my jobs played a role in getting me ready for my current position,” she says. Calpine Corp.’s GC, Lisa Bodensteiner, agrees. At 15, she took a job as a minimum-wage hotel maid in Reno, her hometown. The work and the coworkers were pretty grim. To make 50 cents more per hour — which looked good to a teenager — she signed on to do cleanup at a construction site. When she and her younger sister arrived at work, they found that they were two of only three women on the crew. Bodensteiner immediately realized the situation was no place for young girls. She and her sister quit at lunchtime and hiked the five miles home. Her paycheck for that morning was only $15, but the lesson was priceless: “Listen to your gut. It’s always right. Quickly assess a situation, and if you’ve made a bad decision, own up to it, and take action.” Not bad advice for any in-house lawyer.

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