Laurel Bellows began her career as a trial attorney 37 years ago, showing up at her first job ready to meet her new corporate clients.
But her boss, who would later become her husband, gave her a different assignment, one that laid the groundwork for her decades of advocacy for women.
Arriving at his office, she asked, "OK, where are my clients?" And he said, "You're not trying cases for my clients."
Instead, Joel Bellows sent her to court to represent people accused of misdemeanors who did not have attorneys. There, she met her first clients: alleged prostitutes.
"Most were about 6 feet tall, with very, very high heels and leopard-skin (clothes)," she said, and "had never seen a little blond lawyer."
But she defended them with zeal, "actually making the prosecutor prove his case instead of assuming they were guilty," said Bellows, 64.
Her reputation increased, and soon she had a following of women lining up in the mornings outside the law office.
"Some of our commodity clients would come over just to see the women, so our commodity business grew," she said, not at all joking. "Working with these women, there were no stereotypes. Everyone was an individual. They were each on the street for a particular reason. They were working hard; it was not an easy life at all. It made me appreciate that you can't judge someone's life as being worthless or valueless."
Her work with executives began with women too. She started representing female financial brokers "who were looking for someone who would understand the issues they would face."
Those clients referred her to others, and Bellows started representing executives of both genders, as well as corporations, dealing with contract negotiations and compensation issues.
Today, Bellows is the incoming president of the Chicago-based American Bar Association. She and her husband have represented a number of area executives in recent years, according to court records.
Theresa Metty, once the chief procurement officer for Motorola Inc., was let go and sued the company, claiming she had been discriminated against because of her gender; the case was settled. Angus Finlay, former senior vice president of Beam Global Spirits & Wine, brought a lawsuit against his former employer in an attempt to recover severance benefits. A judge ruled against him.
"An employment contract is like a prenuptial agreement, just like separation is like a divorce," Bellows said. "So it's like marriage and divorce, corporate-style."
Carrie Hightman said Bellows has represented her, members of her family and Indiana-based energy company NiSource, where Hightman is executive vice president and chief legal officer.
"Laurel is (a) well-rounded counselor," Hightman said. "She does not view things from simply a legal perspective, which is why she is such an effective lawyer. Importantly, Laurel is not just persuasive, but compelling."
Expert with execs
The practice she shared with Joel became Bellows and Bellows before Laurel broke off to start her own firm, The Bellows Law Group, more than two years ago. Her aim was to become a female entrepreneur and to make it easier for clients to diversify their supply chain by hiring a woman-owned firm.
Though Bellows has also represented corporations regarding employment contracts, much of her firm's work focuses on negotiating the exits of executives. She is well aware of the scrutiny executives are under for high pay packages, but she said extremes of compensation can skew both ways.
"There's much too little, and there's much too much, but who's to say? It's got to be case by case, person by person, job by job," she said. "It's my thought that performance-based compensation is always the appropriate direction. If you have performed well, you should be compensated. If you don't perform well, you shouldn't get rewarded for it."
Senior managers sometimes visit her with complaints they have been unfairly fired or been discriminated against, their feelings raw.
"(Executives) generally come to me in their most vulnerable, and that translates to either being very cooperative and willing to accept advice or feeling insecure and needing to control every statement," Bellows said. "In the most traumatic circumstances, it's like a divorce, and they feel like somebody has betrayed them, and there's a desire for vengeance. All of those emotions are very normal, and I have to work with them."
She works with four associates from her offices on the eighth floor of the Rookery Building, 209 S. LaSalle St., where she shares work space with her husband and his two associates. One of Bellows' associates, Francine Bailey, said her boss "is hands-on and hands-off at the same time. She knows about everything, but it's not necessarily the day-to-day grind."
Her husband said that even though Bellows builds relationships with ease, she retains a diplomatic boldness. He recalls an occasion when was just starting out and approached the bench to tell a judge that he could not read aloud a woman's rap sheet until she was found guilty.
"He was kind of amazed," said Joel, 72, "that she would have the gall to tell him his job.'"
Likability is of little importance to Bellows when she is negotiating or in the courtroom. Her approach, she said, is like that of a chameleon; she adjusts her strategy, plus what she wears and the modulation of her voice, to each case.
"With finding the tone, I can be vicious," she said, dropping her voice, "or I can be friendly. I practice law with an edge."
One of a handful of female law school students in her 1974 class at the School of Law at Loyola University Chicago, Bellows said her initial experience of being a trial lawyer in the 1970s was fraught with discriminatory remarks.
"I would go into court," she said, "and the judge would look down at me and say, 'All right, so tell me when your lawyer is here.' "
Such comments galvanized her. For decades, she has been an advocate for equal pay. She was a vocal supporter of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009. She continues to press for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Just because the cause is no longer a personal barrier -- at a rate of $675 per hour, Bellows bills $125 more than her husband -- her advocacy for equal pay and equitable treatment for women in the workforce continues.
In January 1992, Bellows was serving as chairwoman of the Chicago Bar Association.
"Halfway through my year, I said to myself, 'Hmm, I wonder how other women in the law are doing,' " she said. "Because I was doing fine. So I expected other women to say they were doing fine. I called five friends, said, 'Come on over for breakfast, and we're going to talk about how women are doing. And if you want to bring other women, go ahead.
"So I figured my friends would come and we would talk about how good things were. Seventy women showed up -- 70 women -- to tell me how bad it was, how difficult it was."
In response, Bellows started the CBA's Alliance for Women, which promotes female leadership and fairness in the city's law firms and champions women's causes more generally.
"She is a completely fearless advocate in this," said Roberta "Bobbi" Liebenberg, a partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia and the co-chair of an ABA gender equality task force. "It's not just confined to women lawyers. She really is looking at the welfare of women in society as a whole."
Chance to make some changes
One recent Monday, Bellows opens the ebony door to her Gold Coast home and smiles in greeting before proceeding up the stairs in a swirl of motion. On the living room carpet she has spread an array of blazers and skirts that await transfer to a suitcase.
She explains that she has just returned two days ago from Munich, and before that a trip to Venezuela. The next day would be Vermont; a few days later, London.
There had been a meeting with the Inter-American Bar Association and then the German Bar Association. Then there would be a visit with the American Bar Foundation and after that several meetings with various European Bar Associations.
"Nonstop. She is just nonstop," said her assistant, Gaylinn Varkalis. "She's just always been that way."
Though the ABA president's position is unsalaried (the organization reimburses Bellows for expenses and covers association-related travel costs), she has spent several hours each day for the last year preparing for her term, which begins Aug. 6 during the ABA annual meeting in Chicago.
In addition to accrediting law schools, the ABA sets the model rules of professional conduct for lawyers and judges, educates lawyers, testifies before congressional committees and screens federal judges.
Bellows has set ambitious priorities for the ABA, which has just over 354,000 members, as of the end of May, and 881 staffers. Those priorities include such diverse issues as gender equity, cybersecurity, the underfunding of the justice system and stopping human trafficking.
Despite the shakiness of law jobs for recent grads and a drop in the membership of the ABA -- its membership numbers once surpassed 400,000 -- Bellows believes the organization can use its collective power to influence law and public policy.
In preparation for Election Day, Bellows said, the ABA is working with state governments to prevent voter suppression. Leading up to her term, she has formed an ABA task force on human trafficking that will focus on victim support, business conduct and prosecution training.
Linda Klein, managing shareholder of the Georgia offices of Baker Donelson and chair of the ABA's policymaking arm, the House of Delegates, has known Bellows for two decades and said Bellows "has great sympathy for people who are underdogs and victims."
"This comes from my heart about Laurel: She's energized, she's focused, she's brilliant," continued Klein, of Atlanta. "She creates a plan, shares the plan with a team, and they get sucked in by her energy and buy into her vision."
Like mother, like daughter
Born on the North Side, Bellows spent the first few years of her life near Addison and Broadway before doing a residential hopscotch with her family around the northern suburbs, first to Lincolnwood, then Wilmette and, finally, Highland Park, where she went to high school.
She is the only child from the marriage of Michael Gordon, a commercial auctioneer, and Lois Loren Gross, who read books aloud to be recorded for the blind. In a bit of foreshadowing, Gross often read textbooks on law.
"She was the one who was responsible for pushing me to go to law school," Bellows said of her mom. "She called me up every day and said, 'Have you applied?' "
Now 87 and living on the Near North Side, Gross said of her daughter: "I knew what she was capable of doing. And I wanted her to do something worthwhile and serious."
Bellows, in turn, has motivated others.
Alyse Lasser, a lawyer who lives in Schaumburg, said Bellows' legal and business guidance proved vital in helping her start her own company, Insight Executive Search Partners. In 2006, she mentioned to Bellows over lunch that she was considering the move.
"She immediately put me in her advising sights and gave me outstanding and counterintuitive legal and business advice on being an entrepreneur that I had not considered," Lasser said. "It changed my thinking and was enormously helpful, even to this day."
Paula Hudson Holderman, global chief attorney development officer at the Chicago office of Winston & Strawn, heard Bellows speak four years ago at a networking tea for women that Bellows hosts each spring at her home. Bellows urged the women to take risks in order to achieve their goals, and Holderman grew motivated to run for president of the Illinois State Bar Association, a position she assumes next year.
"I was always amazed," said Holderman, "at how much power and ambition was packed into one little person."
Bellows, who describes herself as "4-foot, 11 and 3/4 inches, because my family won't let me round up," gravitates toward color in her wardrobe. On that recent Monday morning, she dressed in a pale blue blazer that would later be exchanged for a bright magenta one.
For the past decade, she has hired Lauren Lein, a designer with a studio in River North, to make most of her clothes because "I'm short, and I always want to wear things that nobody else is wearing."
There's another motivation too.
"I just felt it was important to prove that I could be a woman lawyer who could dress like a woman," she said, while walking to Lein's studio, "and not a woman lawyer who fit in because she dressed like a man."
Bellows insists that in her core, she's a shy person. But she radiates energy in a room. Last year, she addressed the House of Delegates at the ABA's annual meeting in Toronto, telling them how "we together, we have changed laws, we've changed policies, we've changed attitudes and we have changed lives." In a video of that speech, she barely referenced her notes, making each word crisp and filling her speech with meaningful pauses and inflections.
"She is one of the most mesmerizing, extemporaneous speakers I've ever seen," said Liebenberg, the ABA member from Philadelphia.
"She believes in everything she says and is able to crystallize her thoughts in a way that is very powerful."
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Laurel Bellows, principal at The Bellows Law Group; incoming president, American Bar Association.
Lives in: Chicago's Gold Coast and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Family: Husband Joel Bellows, 72, and daughter, Lindsay, 31. Also Laura, Kyle and Bambi, from Joel's first marriage.
Education: Bachelor's degree in language and international business at the University of Pennsylvania; juris doctor at the School of Law at Loyola University Chicago.
Past notable volunteer positions: President of the Chicago Bar Association, chair of the American Bar Association's House of Delegates, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. Though Bellows will be the fifth female president of the ABA, a Chicago lawyer last served in the post in 1976-77.
Eats at: Adobo Grill ("best margarita in the world -- straight up"), Gaylord, India House, Dee's Restaurant, Topo Gigio and Santorini.
If she could change something about herself: "My associates would tell you that I work fast and I expect a lot from them. I know they're smart, so I'm demanding excellence and maybe not as patient as I should be, although they're fabulous. ... Maybe I run too fast and sometimes forget to use a softer tone in order to get something done. And I convey a harder edge than I'm feeling. If I had a wish, it would be soften the elbows a little bit to be a more patient listener. And not to be frustrated at the time it takes to change the world."