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.”
Bellows, was born in Chicago and was raised by her divorced mother in the affluent Highland Park neighborhood. Early on, her mother, a child of the Depression, instilled in her the importance of being economically independent.
“I come from families that were conservative about their use of money and legitimately worried that there might not be enough to take us through retirement,” she said. “So one of the things that really informed me would have been more my mother’s insistence on economic independence for me, which was informed by her divorce and needing to know that she could support herself, or [her] wanting me to support myself.”
Bellows grew up in a Reform Jewish household that wasn’t very religious, but she said her Jewish identity influenced her ideas about justice. “You know if you grew up in a Jewish household, you celebrate Passover, you can’t help but understand over and over again, we built the pyramids not by choice,” Bellows said. “You grow up with a sense of responsibility not necessarily to change the world, but to understand how fragile your existence is.”
After Bellows graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, she worked for a few years and married her first husband, whom she later amicably divorced. After attending Loyola University Chicago School of Law, she soon went to work for a small business litigation firm run by the man who would be her future husband, Joel Bellows.
“He taught me how to practice law. Everything. How to attract and retain clients. How to represent clients zealously. How to prepare for a case. How to strategize,” she said.
Bellows soon became active in the young lawyers group of the Chicago Bar Association and then eventually became president of the CBA and founded its Alliance for Women. Through the CBA she became president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and was elected to serve on the ABA’s Board of Governors and as a chairperson of the ABA’s House of Delegates. She also chaired the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession. In 2011 she was voted in as the ABA’s president for the 2012-2013 year.
Bellows’s year as president of the ABA was one of deep personal sacrifice. Her role as president was full time but unpaid, and it meant she had to leave her position as managing partner of The Bellows Law Group. At times, being at the center of legal controversy was scary. When the ABA endorsed California senator Dianne Feinstein’s assault weapon’s bill, Bellows said she received physical threats from one member-attorney in opposition to the group’s stance. In spite of that, “every second was thrilling,” she said.
One of Bellows’s key accomplishments during the course of her 12-month tenure was the establishment of the ABA’s Gender Equity Task Force, charged with publishing four groundbreaking pamphlets on how to tackle the gender disparity in the legal profession head-on, from helping women advocate for themselves to making sure they receive equal pay at their firms. According to a 2012 NAWL Foundation study, women attorneys make up 45% of associates in the nation’s 200 largest law firms, yet their number is reduced dramatically as they move up the ladder: Only 15% of equity partners are women.
“Nobody was talking about it,” Bellows said. “We now have campaigns at all the state and local bars to speak about these issues. The very fact that the barriers persist and nobody was being vocal about this issue was a problem.”
Bellows’s focus on gender equity took on a special meaning, given that this year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The legislation, signed by President Kennedy, made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages when men and women perform substantially equal work. Bellows has been a strong proponent of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would prohibit employers from punishing employees for sharing salary information with their co-workers. An update to the Equal Pay Act, the bill would protect employees who seek to learn about wage disparities in their workplaces and to evaluate whether they are experiencing wage discrimination.
“People don’t believe there is a pay gap; they just don’t believe it exists — that it’s all in our heads,” said Linda Bray Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas at Austin. Chanow said that even the ABA’s male members get defensive when the issues of unequal pay are raised.
Chanow applauds Bellows’s advocacy, which she said comes “at a great personal risk. When you are not in the ‘good girl’ stereotype, it’s easy to be marginalized and dismissed. To use the bully pulpit she’s on and really push forth these incredibly important issues facing women is a stunning example for us all.”
Meredith Mandell is a New York-based freelance journalist for the New York Times, The New York Observer, WNYC radio and others.