Her colleagues in the financial services industry call Christine A. Edwards a tough, unwavering advocate of her company, Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Capitol Hill staffers she has lobbied over the years said she is a consummate professional who knows how to stay on good terms with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

And her former boss, Dennis H. Greenwald, describes her as a superb manager who can "lead and direct, without controlling" a large group of independent-minded lawyers in addition to nurturing high-level contacts with senior government officials.

Edwards this month became one of the highest-ranking women executives on Wall Street, replacing Greenwald as executive vice president, general counsel and director for Dean Witter Financial Services Group, a Sears subsidiary, after Greenwald's retirement. She now oversees legal affairs for all of Dean Witter, in addition to supervising the kind of lobbying on which she built her career.

Edwards has worked for Sears all her adult life, starting in 1970 as a part-time clerk in the credit department during her freshman year at the University of Maryland in College Park. She entered the company's management training program after graduation, and attended the University of Maryland's law school at night, graduating with honors in 1983.

"I started at Sears with the full intention that I would work there for the summer and leave, but they kept encouraging me to stay," Edwards said. "Now, when people ask me how long I've worked here, I just say 'forever.' "

Edwards led Sears's lobbying on Capitol Hill during the 1980s, when it evolved from a retail giant to a financial services conglomerate that wanted to sell everything from socks to stocks. Against the opposition of banks and other traditional financial institutions, she worked to let Sears legally expand what it could offer customers.

"These issues are extraordinarily complex -- it's like walking through a minefield," said Steven B. Harris, staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Banking Committee. "I've always found her to be very professional and highly competent ... she has a reservoir of goodwill on the Hill."

Edwards, who was based in Washington until 1988, when she was named general counsel for Sears Consumer Financial Corp. in Riverwoods, Ill., said her latest promotion means fewer trips to the District and more time in Chicago and New York.

But, ever the lobbyist, she will still make occasional trips to Washington to see officials "who I have developed a relationship with over time." That group includes Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Richard Breeden, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman L. William Seidman, according to lobbyists and financial services executives.

"She has managed to develop very good relations with people in the entire financial services sector," said Sam J. Baptista, president of the Financial Services Council, an lobbying group on whose board Edwards sits.

The current thrift crisis and economic slowdown create more, rather than fewer, opportunities for Sears to expand its financial services, Edwards said. "The time is right ... and there is no shortage of problem institutions who need capital," she said.

But Sears is constrained -- unfairly, according to Edwards -- by laws that bar banks and brokerage firms from crossing into each others' territories.

"We believe in regulation by function," Edwards said, advocating changes that would let her company take deposits and make loans as banks can. "If that occurs, then we're copacetic."

Baptista praised Edwards for being "no-nonsense, yet affable," and said she stands out in an industry dominated by men. According to Greenwald, Edwards is the first woman appointed general counsel for any major brokerage firm.

But Edwards said neither her gender nor her relative youth -- she is 38 -- have been major issues during her career.

"Our management group has been extremely aggressive in promoting women and minorities," Edwards said. "The challenge for me now is to give other women at Dean Witter the same kind of encouragement that I was given."