New ABA president will advocate
for gender equity, among other issues
Laurel G. Bellows
For Laurel Bellows, the path to president of the American Bar Association began in her backyard. “My roots run deep in the local bar,” says the business litigator and executive compensation lawyer, who served as president of the Chicago Bar Association from 1991 to 1992 and focused on revamping the juvenile justice system in Cook County, Illinois, with husband Joel. “As president, I was fortunate to become actively involved with the National Conference of Bar Presidents and then become president of the NCBP. This eye-opening experience with the power of bar associations working in concert to effect real change set the stage for my journey into national bar leadership and introduced me to the world of the ABA.”
But it was Bellows’ involvement in the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession that made her a believer in what the association stands for and can accomplish. “Working hand in hand with these capable and dedicated women lawyers on substantive issues, I was empowered and incentivized to create real change,” she says.
Now Bellows, the new ABA president, plans to create change in her role by advocating for gender equity in the profession and fighting against human trafficking, among other goals.
YourABA spoke with Bellows about her background and her ABA initiatives.
Why did you decide to run to be president of the ABA?
I realized that the American Bar Association presented a unique national platform for making positive changes in important areas: individual rights, equality and access to justice.
The idea of becoming president of the ABA was not front and center in my mind. I simply wanted to play an active role in making and implementing effective policy for the ABA.
I began to consider a run for chair of the House of Delegates, the association’s policymaking body. In 2006, I achieved my goal of becoming chair — the ABA’s second-highest office — and had a seat on the executive committee of the Board of Governors. Serving as chair opened yet another door in the ABA, as president, which is truly an extraordinary opportunity and a serious platform from which to harness the power of lawyers and the people of this country to demand change in society’s priorities.
What does the president of the ABA do?
As president, I speak for our association, expressing ABA policy as it is determined by the House of Delegates. I also express ABA policy before legislative bodies and governmental agencies.
I serve as ex officio member of the House of Delegates, the Board of Editors of the ABA Journal, and the Board of Governors, our governing body.
What is your legal experience?
I am a principal of The Bellows Law Group PC, in Chicago, with a strategic alliance with my husband’s firm, Bellows and Bellows PC, where I cut my teeth in business law and litigation, in business fraud, commodities and securities law. I am a critical thinker, business strategist and problem solver for significant U.S.-based corporations. I spend much of my time counseling senior executives and corporations on employment issues, employment and severance agreements, and related executive compensation matters.
My expertise in executive compensation matters also includes change-in-control scenarios, midlevel-management compensation, benefit plans, and matters involving incentives, pensions, retirement and workforce restructuring.
As ABA president, what major projects will be your focus?
During the coming year, the ABA will advocate in these major areas of focus: on the abolition of human trafficking in the United States, gender equity, cybersecurity, the imperative of adequate funding for our court system, and the preservation of the civil jury trial.
What is the ABA doing about achieving gender equity in the legal profession?
The Commission on Women in the Profession has served for nearly 25 years as a national voice for women in the legal profession and has worked to ensure that women have equal opportunities for professional growth and advancement.
Although women have made great strides in law and in society as a whole, they remain grossly underrepresented in positions of power, influence and leadership. For example, did you know that despite the fact that close to half of law students are now women and more than half of judicial clerks are women, the percentage of women equity partners has remained static at 16 percent or less? Did you know that, according to our latest statistics, 85 percent of women of color left large firms after five years? Our Task Force on Gender Equity will launch a social-media “Did you know” campaign to share such statistics to educate men and women on the persistence of gender-equity barriers. (Share your “Did you know?” by tweeting it to @ABAGenderEquity.)
There are many reasons that the glass ceiling continues to limit women’s progress, including implicit bias and hidden stereotypes. To address these issues, the Task Force on Gender Equity will spotlight gender inequity in society and look at the long-standing pay disparity between female lawyers and their male counterparts. The task force will develop a Model Compensation Policy for law firm use and provide best practices to help lawyers negotiate their pay and gain opportunities in their firm. It will also create a “pay gap toolkit.” State and local bar organizations will be able to use this kit to educate their members about the underlying reasons for the disparity in pay between female and male lawyers.
To begin coordination of the ABA’s work in this area, the Section Officers Conference held a summit of section, division, forum, and ABA leadership and staff earlier this month. At the recent ABA Annual Meeting, women’s affinity groups from our sections, divisions and forums gathered together for the first time to discuss how we can work effectively toward shared goals. Plus, we held a successful town hall meeting to discuss gender-equity issues.
What can law firms and women do to promote gender equity?
Law firms can create a climate where senior partners mentor entry-level women associates and sponsor, not simply mentor, women to ensure their success. Women must also shoulder the responsibility of sponsoring other women and promoting the achievements of other women inside and outside of their organization.
Law firms need to develop and implement internal systems that advance women in the firm to offset those opportunities traditionally available to an “old boys’ network.” We want an “all people network” working in the best interests of each person’s advancement and the success of each firm as a whole. At the same time, women can confront their own internal gender bias by telling themselves, “I may not be perfect for this promotion, but I have the skills and the experience to lead.”
Why is the fight against human trafficking important to you, and what, as ABA president, will you do to make a difference?
People are unfree in our land of the free. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are coerced into labor and sex for the profit of their captors within our borders every year. Nationally, 100,000 U.S. citizens are victims of human traffickers. I understand that each year in the Chicago metropolitan area, at least 16,000 women and girls are at risk for being coerced into prostitution. There are few places in the U.S. that are untouched by this modern slavery. Americans need to know that this shameful horror of human trafficking is taking place in our country.
The ABA will launch a multipronged attack on human trafficking. The new Task Force on Human Trafficking will propose business-conduct standards and best practices to eliminate slave labor in corporate supply chains; train police, prosecutors, defense counsel and judges to identify the perpetrators and recognize victims as victims, not defendants; and facilitate pro bono training to increase the number of lawyers available to represent victims of human trafficking.
We will also promote public awareness of human trafficking through media campaigns dedicated to eradication of modern-day slavery in the U.S.
How do you plan to tackle the issue of cybersecurity?
Defense has evolved from bunkers and battlements to firewalls and passwords. The opponents and vectors of attack in the Internet age may be unfamiliar, but the dangers to our individual, corporate and national security are just as real.
The ABA recently created the Task Force on National Cybersecurity. Comprised of experts in national security, disaster preparedness, law and technology, the task force will examine risks posed by criminals, terrorists and nations that hope to steal personal and financial information, disrupt critical infrastructure, and wage a new kind of warfare on a battlefield of ones and zeros.
Government and private-sector responses to these risks are the task force’s central concern. Our nation's response to a catastrophic cyberattack on military information systems or a computer virus that plunges millions into darkness should be a concern for every American. The task force will make recommendations to enhance business and national security while preserving the civil rights and liberties that define who we are.
Failing to address our cybersecurity vulnerabilities would put the United States in the crosshairs of any malevolent actor with an Internet connection. If we act to address these issues now, however, we can preserve the economic and information boon that is the Internet and avoid having to make far-reaching decisions at the very moment of a national crisis.
Court funding is an issue on which the ABA has had a strong voice. Will you carry on the work of past presidents to ensure improved and sustainable investments in our court system?
Under the leadership of Stephen Zack and Bill Robinson, we will highlight the imperative need for adequate funding of our justice system. What differentiates us from every dictatorship in the world is the courthouse, and our courts are the ultimate key to our democracy. But justice is disappearing in this country. Judicial benches are empty. Courtroom doors are closing. Individuals and corporations face waits for justice that stretch into years.
No one would suggest the military take Fridays off from protecting our nation. So why is it acceptable for the justice system to close down?
We ask lawyers and bar associations across the country to join together to fight this crisis. Each state bar should actively lobby its state legislator, write op-eds and letters to the editor to local newspapers, and visit rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, high schools and other groups to spread the word. We will follow the lead of those bar associations that are mobilizing opinion leaders and have already developed Web pages, videos and Twitter accounts on this issue. We will encourage state bars to rally in front of courthouses, put billboards on interstates and assemble powerful campaigns to solve the underfunding crisis by engaging voters to elect legislators committed to allocating resources necessary to keep the door of our justice system open.
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