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On Sept. 11, 2001, United Air Lines Inc. was at the center of the storm: One of its planes slammed into the World Trade Towers; another crashed in Pennsylvania. It was a tough time for America and a tough time to be a United executive. For Marian Durkin the terrorist attacks occurred in what had already been a difficult year. That June, just two months after she started as assistant general counsel for the airline, her boss, general counsel Francesca Maher, lost her husband to a cardiac aneurysm. Suddenly, Durkin found herself shouldering half of Maher’s workload in addition to her own. Then, just as things were returning to normal, Sept. 11 hit. Durkin’s immediate concern that day was for her daughter, Maggie, who had started college in New York the previous week. Maggie was fine, so Durkin set to work. Her 20-lawyer staff was in the middle of the action: They worked with a customer service team to get information to families of the passengers and employees who had been killed. The attorneys also counseled United’s treasury and finance groups as they frantically worked with the airline’s bankers, vendors and insurers to maintain operations while revenues plunged. Strapped for funds, United laid off 20 percent of its staff, sweeping Durkin’s team into an avalanche of new human resources issues and benefits-related work. And with three of its attorneys laid off, her group had fewer hands to get it all done. Throughout the maelstrom, recalls Maher, who personally nominated Durkin for Corporate Counsel‘s Shortlist, her assistant GC was a rock. Maher describes Durkin as energetic, pragmatic and conscientious. The 48-year-old came to United in 1995 from Minneapolis’ Briggs and Morgan, where she was a partner. At United, Durkin chairs the company’s benefit plan committee and negotiates benefits issues with the pilots’ and flight attendants’ unions. Peter Kain, United’s vice president for labor relations, says that Durkin’s “candor, directness and integrity” have earned her tremendous credibility with labor leaders. “She doesn’t pull any punches or sugarcoat anything,” he says. “Issues that have been contentious melt away when she explains them to doubting union reps.” Virginia Grady, director of benefits for the Elk Grove Township, Ill.-based company, sings Durkin’s praises, too. “Marian is a wonderful leader,” she says. “She takes professional and personal interest in her clients — which pays huge dividends in times of crisis.” Crisis control can be the ultimate test for a GC. Considering the mettle and managerial skills Durkin displayed post-Sept. 11, she seems to have the goods for the top job. Maher certainly thinks so: “I nominated her because she deserves it, and I want to recognize her — but I don’t want to lose her.”

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