By Sonia Coleman • February 15, 2012•Careers
Tips from the Top: Laurel Bellows
Laurel Bellows, a principal of The Bellows Law Group, P.C. in Chicago, represents executives in the United States and internationally. Laurel is an experienced business lawyer counseling senior executives and corporations on employment matters, employment and severance agreements, executive compensation and workplace disputes. Her expertise in executive compensation matters also includes mid-level management compensation and benefit plans, and matters involving incentives, pensions, retirement and workforce restructuring.
Bellows is currently president-elect of the American Bar Association. Her one-year term as president will begin at the conclusion of the ABA Annual Meeting in August 2012. She has served as chair of the association’s policy making House of Delegates (2006-2008), the second highest elected office in the ABA. Bellows has also served as chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, and as a member of the ABA Board of Governors, where she chaired the Finance Committee. She was also president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and chair of its Metropolitan Bar Caucus, ABA affiliates.
Bellows’ work in the law and her community has been recognized by many publications. Crain’s Chicago Business lists Bellows among its annual list of Power Players; in 2006, she was named one of the 28 Power Lawyers in the City by Chicago Magazine; she was cited as one of Chicago’s 100 Women of Influence in 1996, also by Crain’s Chicago Business; and Bellows was listed among Working Mother Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Working Mothers in the country in 1997.
You are the President-Elect of the American Bar Association, the largest voluntary professional association in the world. Did you plan to rise to the highest leadership position within that organization? If so, how did you aspire to do so?
No. Never in my wildest dreams. There are many people who know what they want to do with their lives and can plan their careers accordingly. I admire those who can do so, but I am not one of them. I have enjoyed other leadership roles in bar associations, but it really is a product of working with people that I enjoy working with and taking on leadership responsibilities. Even then, there was no real planning until I woke up and realized that I had prepared myself and that I could affect positive change in a number of areas. I would be remiss in not taking on that role.
What advice would you give women who plan to aspire to leadership in bar organizations?
There are many opportunities to put yourself in leadership positions early on. You do not have to wait until graduate or law school. Leadership is encouraged in lower grades. There are those who do not catch the leadership bug until later. Think about the time you need to take on the leadership role. It should not be separate, but a part of life with people you know and like being with. Find what it is you love to do and take time to do it. Take on leadership roles. I encourage women to attend conferences with a significant number of women who offer lots of advice – peers and experienced mentors. Volunteer for committees – state and local bars, such as the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section. Write articles for bar journals online, get on panels, teach CLE courses. The internet makes it easier in terms of teaching CLE. Teach courses on topics such as Ethics or how to be a mother and partner, or speak on your own practice niche. Look for opportunities; learn about work life balance and alternative law firm practice ideas. Attend seminars about managing work/life and speak with other women and men and learn how they did it.
How do you balance your personal life with the demands of private practice?
I don’t. I integrate. I think it’s important to be honest. My life is managed chaos (on a good day). On a bad day, it’s unmanaged chaos. I know no one who can “balance.” Young women look at others and think there is something wrong with them when they cannot maintain balance. I wear many hats – wife, mother… I am extraordinarily active in the professional community and still consider myself a top-notch lawyer. Anyone should recognize that there is no such thing as balance. I love what I do! I am passionate about being a lawyer and the opportunity this lends to be involved in all levels of advocacy. Am I happy every minute of the day? Absolutely not! I keep mental pictures of all the things that I have done. I always touch base with how grateful I am with the opportunity to live this amazing life!
Bolster your support system. Enlist a trusted cabinet of friends and coworkers to pitch in and bring perspective. I’d like to tell you that every day I exercise, get enough sleep, but I do not. I do, however try to keep in mind what is an emergency as opposed to what is a crisis which can be contained. Identify what may be resolved in a less urgent manner. Be strong enough to mange priorities. It’s difficult, but crucial. It comes with sitting down at night and being overwhelmed. I am a “list person”, but not super organized. I make a list with what needs to be done. Delegate and trust others. I don’t leave work at work. I recognize that you should do so. However, I would rather say, “Live in the moment.” If you are working, then work. If you are with friends at dinner, do not work. Read fun books which are different than what you do. Pick yourself up and go to an art museum. There should be alone time where you are just alone. This is time to think about what you have done and think about where you are and where you are going. What is your mental state? You need time by yourself to think about this.
How do you overcome your fear/uncertainty when navigating in unchartered waters?
Nobody likes to admit that they are fearful or uncertain, but it is a rare exception to find someone who never is. How frequently and under what circumstances can vary for different individuals. If you do not admit to feeling fearful, you are just repressing.
I do not like entering a room filled with strangers. I accommodate by over preparation. If I am confident in my preparation, it helps me to get over the uncertainty. I will walk into the room and pick out one person to break the ice. After the first moment, it seems to be fine. I find that I like my hands free to be more animated. I also choose what I am going to wear in advance. I often choose a bright color and so when I walk into the room, I feel confident. I assume the event may be unchartered for me, but there is someone who has chartered that course. That is when I will ask questions of my support system. I think of five questions to ask people in advance of the event. People always like to talk about themselves. Think of 3 or 4 news events in advance to discuss at the event. Did you hear what happened? Did you read about it?
Would you recommend that women litigators be as aggressive and confrontational as male litigators? Why or why not?
Successful women have found a tone that is a combination of strength and ability. If you have openness, but a strong personality, it’s easier for people to accept you. It’s more about a tone that people will hear and absorb what you have to say. Women litigators do have problems with finding balance with aggression and being too accommodating. Women who are aggressive and confident can be labeled and avoided. In a firm environment, it is tough to be a women who has been labeled as aggressive. That is the difference. Lack of visible and strong confident presence and often labeled as aggressive. Successful women trial lawyers are still admired in court as long as they have established trust and are aggressive at the same time.
How are you able to establish a trusting relationship with people who must trust you? What personal traits must you demonstrate?
Women lawyers must be chameleons. There are steps to cultivate these relationships. As you move forward, try to assume management functions and leadership roles. Try to establish visibility within the organization in which you are working. Don’t be humble. People need to know your accomplishments. You don’t need to brag, but you need to advise and inform. When someone gives you a compliment, you should say, “Thank you. I am pleased that you have recognized it. I worked hard.”
There is a perception that women are either liked or respected, but rarely both. Do you agree with that opinion? If not, why not?
Women can be liked and respected. Women cannot act in leadership positions without being both liked and respected. However, our job as lawyers is not to be liked, but to zealously represent our clients.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome?
The biggest challenge I have had to overcome is that I am blond and short. Therefore, people underestimate me, but I think that is an added advantage in addition to a challenge. It is an opportunity for me to prove my worth.
What are some tips you can provide for women who are aspiring to succeed in the legal profession?
1. Be certain that you love what you do. You will never be successful at something you hate.
2. You have to build a book of business. Be financially/economically independent. Make certain to treat every client as if they were the only client and as if your world revolves around them.
3. Begin referring matters to your friends. Wherever you are make sure that people know what you do for a living.
4. Take risks. Accept the stretch assignments.
5. Network. You cannot network enough. Make sure to network with projects and community organizations about which you have a passion. Every week you should be attending an event. Every day you should be talking to someone. The people you network with today will be able to give you business in five years.
6. Be generous with advice. Always help when you can. Try not to say, “No” to someone asking for help.