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Everyone knows Vernon Jordan. The Washington lawyer-turned-investment banker, with a seat on nearly a dozen corporate boards, is recognized widely as a smooth, supremely connected fixer extraordinaire. But Helene Kaplan? Although she sits on the boards of five Fortune 250 companies, more than any other practicing attorney in the country according to a recent National Law Journal survey, you’re forgiven if you can’t place her. Even the usually exhaustive data yielded by a Lexis-Nexis search produces few mentions — mostly reports that the 67-year-old of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom has been appointed to serve on yet another board. While barely mentioned publicly, Kaplan is well-known in powerful circles as a trustee and board member of numerous companies and prestigious institutions. The long list of her affiliations includes Exxon Mobil Corp., The Chase Manhattan Corp., Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, The American Museum of Natural History, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (where she’s chairman of the board). Rather extraordinary for a trusts and estates lawyer who’s never been a CEO or held any corporate managerial position. How has Kaplan maneuvered herself into such positions of power and prestige? She won’t speak to reporters, so it’s hard to tell. But in the world of corporate governance, one coveted position leads to another. And with diversity still a buzzword, a well-connected woman who makes generous contributions to philanthropies remains a hot commodity. “When you identify a senior woman that has good credentials and experience, they’re probably going to be asked to serve on many different boards,” explains Dan Dalton, dean of the Indiana University business school and an expert on corporate governance. But those who know her insist that Kaplan is also intelligent, insightful, and dedicated — a strong leader with the charm and grace to smooth the passage of even the most controversial board resolutions. “She has wonderful judgment,” says New York University law professor Norman Dorsen, who has known Kaplan since she was his student in the ’60s and served with her on a panel advising the Treasury Department in the mid-’90s. (They’ve also lived in the same Central Park West building in New York for 25 years.) Kaplan gets the most acclaim for her work at Barnard College, her alma mater, where she served on the board for more than 25 years — including 10 as its head. Kaplan is credited with leading the school out of a fiscal crisis in the early ’80s, keeping it an independent women’s institution when Columbia College went coed in 1983, and transforming it into a fully residential college. With her two daughters still at home, Kaplan became a lawyer in 1967. As a partner and then of counsel at New York’s now-defunct Webster & Sheffield, she carved out a career that continues to defy convention. She joined Skadden in 1990, and her of counsel status lets her focus on activities outside the firm. Helene Kaplan may be no Vernon Jordan, but this woman of influence is quietly leaving a mark on some of the most important institutions in America.

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