B Peterson

A Summary and Discussion of Building Her Power Base - A Talk by Laurel Bellows

On January 31, 2013, Laurel Bellows, President of the American Bar Association, gave a wide-ranging talk that should be mandatory viewing for all practicing attorneys. Mrs. Bellows discussed her past, gave career advice and analyzed gender-equity problems with uncanny passion, candor and clarity. It is almost needless to say that a blog post is an unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great a presentation. Therefore, I ask you, the reader, to put your imaginary forces to work.

Suppose within the borders of this screen rests a conference room high above the streets of Chicago. The room is at capacity as spectators finish their lunch and anxiously wait for the presentation to begin. The already palpable anticipation is heightened further by the fact that hundreds more are tuning in via-video conference from across the country. At the helm of this auspicious scene is Mrs. Bellows. She has shoulder-length blonde hair and is of short stature (5’ 2” to be exact). But as the presentation begins, it becomes apparent that she is wanting in stature only. “Chameleon-like”, her affect morphs to match the moment. But this is no haphazard affair. It is clear that Mrs. Bellows is carefully choosing her tone to subtly persuade and inspire her audience. As with all indulgences, the presentation comes to an end too soon. But the ideas conveyed during the presentation linger in the minds of the attendees long after it is over. And it is those lingering ideas that I hope to share with you in this blog post.


Risk taking is not something that lawyers are known for but it is essential to leadership and entrepreneurship. Mrs. Bellows acknowledged this important fact and encouraged all lawyers, but especially young lawyers, to “have fun and take risks.” This advice was much needed.

The culture of our profession is often permeated by risk aversion and fear. For example, we have all experienced the uncomfortable silence that fills a law school class room when the professor asks a difficult question.  In my experience, this silence does not occur because of a lack of plausible responses. It occurs because students are so worried about providing a “correct” response (i.e. a response that has been recognized by some person or institution of authority) that they decide it is best to not answer at all. Not surprisingly, the tendency to avoid risk stays with us once we start practicing law. Sometimes we avoid responsibility at work or turn down business opportunities because we are worried that we will not be perfect. The lack of risk taking within the legal profession is problematic for at least two reasons.

First, risk aversion is inimical to creativity and innovation. Novel problems cannot be solved by doing what has been done before. They can only be solved by doing things that have not been done before. But doing something that has never been done before necessarily entails risk. Given that lawyers are asked to solve novel problems every day, they must be willing take risks. If lawyers as a group are unwilling to take risks then society will never get satisfactory solutions to its most pressing problems. Mrs. Bellows emphasized this point by stating that it is our duty as lawyers to protect the values underlying our democracy. We can honor this duty only if we are willing to “be unpopular and advance important causes.” As should be obvious, being unpopular and bucking deeply entrenched conventions requires risk taking.

Second, risk aversion is particularly detrimental to the career prospects of female lawyers. The most valuable opportunities exist when risk and uncertainty are at their highest.  Additionally, those opportunities are few in number and appear randomly. David Boies’ comments in his book Courting Justice: From NY Yankees v. MLB to Bush v. Gore are instructive. “The chance to try a major case at a young age is largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. If a lawyer does so and succeeds, he or she will be on the short list for the next high-profile matter. Under different circumstances, the opportunity to try a case like US v. IBM, Calcomp or Westmoreland might {not} have come {until} decades later, if at all.” Therefore, passing on any given opportunity to take on risk and push your limits can be career-determinative. The worst part is that the choice to avoid a risky assignment may be an unconscious one. As I mentioned earlier, risk aversion is inculcated in us throughout law school and carries over into practice.

Fortunately, we can counteract unconscious risk aversion by consciously seeking out risky new experiences. As Mrs. Bellows pointed out during her talk, all lawyers, no matter how successful and revered they are, get a knot in their stomach before a major matter. (Yes, even David Boies!). Her advice for overcoming fear is to over-prepare and remember the other times we took risks and were successful. She encourages us to focus on that feeling of deep satisfaction and use it as a tool to create further success. At bottom, “you will be scared everyday of your life as a lawyer.” But if you embrace the fear and take risks then most of the time good things will happen. Most importantly, never opt out of doing extremely difficult assignments, even if you believe the matter is above your pay grade.

Risk taking is an integral part of being a lawyer. If we want to be leaders then we need to take risks. If we want to be entrepreneurs then we need to take risks. If we want to uphold the principles underlying our democracy then we need to take risks. It turns out that risk aversion carries risks of its own.


Accomplishing the lofty goals mentioned in the previous section will require a team of like minded individuals. In her talk Mrs. Bellows described how to build that team, which she calls a “Power Base.” There are two key steps to building a Power Base.

The first step is to find people who are honest, supportive and willing to take chances. This is essential because the people you associate with can energize you and help you achieve success or they can ensure that you will fail. This does not mean that you should only associate with people that agree with you. It means that you should associate with people that have a positive impact on your personal development. If you are around supportive people that are willing to take chances with you then helping them will become second nature.

The second step is to “pay it forward.” This means that you need to help the people in your Power Base without any expectation of a reciprocal benefit. You should never ask for personal favors but you should always ask for favors that will benefit others. However, Mrs. Bellows also emphasized the importance of self-promotion and asking for business. Therefore, you have to be selfless when helping your Power Base but you should not completely avoid promoting yourself when appropriate.


It is an unfortunate reality that there is still a substantial pay gap between male and female lawyers. Mrs. Bellows discussed the potential causes of those disparities as well as some forthcoming solutions. The ABA in conjunction with the Center for Women in the Law is publishing The Pay Gap Tool Kit. The Pay Gap Tool Kit is a best practices manual that suggests ways in which compensations systems within law firms can be made more transparent and hopefully help solve the persistent disparity in pay between male and female attorneys. I am certainly excited to read it and encourage all the readers of this post to be on the lookout for it.

I would also like to highlight three quotes regarding work-life balance that I found particularly insightful:

 “Destroy the myth that there is a balanced life.” - Sonia Sotomayor

 “The goal should be to have a full life. . . a balanced life is impossible, you will always be pulled in many different directions. . . you have to redefine what ‘having it all’ means because it is impossible to be perfect at everything” - Laurel Bellows

 “You only have one-life. There are no categories.” - Laurel Bellows

It is foolish to believe that our “personal-life” is completely separate from our “business-life” and there is nothing to be regretted about the merger of the two. Most people believe their business-life is the soul crushing labor that is necessary to pay the bills while they believe their personal-life is the passion filled activities that make life worth living. I believe this is a false dichotomy. But even if it is not, merging the two together would make everyone better off for two reasons.

First, it would force us to realize that both our “business-life” and our “personal-life” can be enjoyable endeavors. Living for the weekend is a horrible way to go through life. Wouldn’t it be preferable to live for the entire week? I think we should all take a page out of Thoreau’s playbook: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life. . . ” Treating our lives as one continuous whole rather than two bifurcated parts would go a long way toward achieving that ideal.

Second, the merger would require us to give more careful consideration to behaviors, practices, expectations and attitudes that exist outside of the workplace but nonetheless contribute heavily toward inequality within the workplace. For example, the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, provided the following statistic in a recent TEDx presentation: In a survey conducted amongst married senior-level executives 1/3 of the women had children while 2/3 of the men had children. See http://www.workingmomsbreak.com/2011/05/31/keep-your-foot-on-the-gas-pedal/. This statistic suggests that women, to a greater extent that men, must sacrifice having children in order to reach the upper echelons of corporate-America. This type of statistic cannot be explained by employment practices alone. Social-norms and other societal practices must be playing a significant role in causing the gender-pay-gap. If we want to solve the problem of gender-inequality then we must take a holistic view of our lives. We cannot solely focus on what happens within the work place.


Mrs. Bellows gave an impressive talk and provided a significant amount of food for thought. I would encourage anyone who is interested in any of the matters I have discussed to acquire a recording of the presentation. As I mentioned at the start, it is hard to do such a good presentation justice in a blog post. Finally, I would like to thank Ms. JD for providing me with the opportunity to write this post.  I hope I will be able to write more in the future.

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