Laurel Bellows

Laurel Bellows, principal at The Bellows Law Group, describes herself as "4-foot, 11 and 3/4 inches, because my family won't let me round up." (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / February 20, 2013)

 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."