After practicing law for nearly two decades, Merrill Sherman sort of stumbled into banking.

For most of her 17 years as a lawyer in Providence, R.I., Sherman had been primary outside counsel for a thrift called Eastland Bank. In the early 1990s, the chairman and CEO asked her to come on board as general counsel and take over credit administration. Eastland-which ultimately was sold in a government-assisted deal to Fleet Financial Group-was buckling under from problem real estate loans.

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