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.

"When I went to work for the bank, I didn't realize quite how troubled it was, and that regulators were forcing the board to change CEOs," Sherman says. "Within three to six months I was made president."

The career switch was not without its skeptics initially. "The book on me was, 'She's a lawyer. What does she know?'" Sherman says.But she had a talent for working through troubled loans and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. recognized it. After Eastland's sale, the agency asked her to take on another troubled bank in Vermont, which was later sold.

She did not stay out of banking long.To get approval for its acquisition of Shawmut Bank, Fleet had to divest branches in her home state, and Sherman teamed up with local investor Malcolm Chace to raise capital to buy them, creating Bank of Rhode Island in 1996.Like Sherman herself, it has become a prominent part of Rhode Island's business landscape. Not bad for an accidental banker.

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