Laurel Bellows Is Above the Law

ABA's Outgoing Jewish President Reflects on Big Year

Lawyer-in-Chief: Laurel Bellows was the fifth female ABA president.
Courtesy of the American Bar Association
Lawyer-in-Chief: Laurel Bellows was the fifth female ABA president.

By Meredith Mandell

Published September 02, 2013, issue of September 06, 2013.
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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.

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