Sometimes when Laurel Bellows stands with her husband at a convention, she’ll see someone point in the couple’s direction and say, “Oh, look, there’s the president of the American Bar Association!” At that point, more than one attorney eager to meet the head of the nearly 400,000-member organization has marched right up to Joel Bellows and shaken his hand.
Laurel’s long blond hair, petite size — she stands at 4 foot 11 —and brightly colored suits might make some underestimate her accomplishments.
Just like Reese Witherspoon’s character, Elle Woods, in the movie “Legally Blonde,” Bellows has had to reckon with the myth that you can’t be a blonde fashionista and a legal powerhouse at the same time.
At 65, Bellows just finished up a whirlwind year as president of the American Bar Association, the largest volunteer professional organization in the world. Its president — the position lasts only a year — has one of the most influential roles in the country when it comes to shaping legal policy. Although she is not the first female ABA president, she is in rare company. Out of 137 ABA presidents, Bellows is only the fifth woman. (The first was Roberta Cooper Ramo of New Mexico, also Jewish, who served from 1995 to 1996.)
Bellows has led the ABA through a number of tumultuous domestic issues: from its endorsement of federal gun regulation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, to its push to reauthorize the stalled Violence Against Women Act, to its efforts to combat the threat of cyber terrorism while protecting rights and liberties after the National Security Agency surveillance leaks scandal.
Perhaps her most successful advocacy was on behalf of human trafficking victims. Bellows created a task force on human trafficking and asked the Uniform Law Commission, a not-for-profit association made up of lawyers and judges, to write model legislation for states to ensure that human traffickers are held accountable for their crimes and to provide better services for victims. There are currently more than 250,000 trafficking victims in the United States, brought over from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia and Latin America, among other places. Bellows, who lives in Chicago, is now working with the ABA in her post-presidency role to draft business conduct standards for corporations to help them avoid unintentionally using forced labor in their overseas operations.
The world of trafficking is “an untold hell,” she said in an interview at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, in between sessions at the annual meeting of the National Association of Women Lawyers. “We didn’t really understand it until a year and a half ago, and I am really proud of what we have done.”