United Continental Holdings Inc. has poached on Sara Lee Corporation's top lawyer Brett J. Hart, who will leave the global consumer-goods company to take charge of the legal affairs of the world's largest air carrier.

Brett's experience, leadership skills and legal expertise are great assets to our senior management team, said United CEO Jeff Smisek, to whom Hart will be reporting directly.

He will play a key role as we integrate United and Continental and build the world's leading carrier, Smisek said.

Prior to joining Sara Lee, Hart was a partner with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago, and had previously served as special assistant to the general counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C.

Hart had earned his J.D. degree from the University of Chicago Law School and a bachelor's degree in philosophy and English from the University of Michigan. He will join his new company by December 15 and replaces United general counsel Tom Sabatino, who announced his plans to exit the position on the same day that the Oct. 1 merger between United Airlines and Continental Airlines was finalized.