around the bar
February 6, 2013

ABA President Shares Insight on Leadership and Entrepreneurship

msjdWith viewing parties from Seattle to Los Angeles on the West Coast, and from Washington, D.C., to Miami on the East Coast, more than 700 young lawyers and law students participated in Ms. JD’s “Building Her Power Base: A Conversation with ABA President Laurel Bellows on Leadership & Entrepreneurship.” The talk, held at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, was webcast to an audience gathered at law firms and law schools around the country on Jan. 31.

Bellows started her conversation with an exuberant proclamation. “I am passionate about being a lawyer,” she exclaimed. “For any young lawyer or law student who is in doubt about your chosen career, I’m here to tell you that you made the right choice,” she added. “Being a lawyer is the most extraordinary adventure that you could ever wish to embark upon.”

Whether it’s in a law firm — small, medium or large; or as a judge, a law professor, or a public servant, Bellows assured the group that despite grim statistics about job prospects for law school graduates, no other profession offers the variety of choices and life experiences.

“Don’t let anybody ever talk you out of the choice you’ve just made,” said Bellows. “And one more thing,” she added, “Don’t opt out.  I want you opting in right now.”

She reminded the audience that their law degrees carry with them responsibilities. “We are the guardians of our democracy,” she said. “You are the guardians of our Constitution. Those are not just words. You are guardians of our way of life,” she added, reinforcing her plea to anyone considering another profession. “I do not want to see anyone opting out from assuring that our country goes forward.”

Bellows detailed her career path from her days as a shoe model—she wore a size four — to her fresh-out-of-college marketing experience with a start-up company that sold Handy Screens, a new-fangled device to keep bacon splattering to a minimum.

Her mother wanted more from her. “She would call me once a week and say, ‘Law school or business school,’” Bellows recalled. “She wouldn’t even say ‘Hi honey.’”

Bellows chose law school and has never looked back.

She took a job at a medium-sized firm in Chicago, but within six months the partner who hired her died and the firm fell apart. Bellows called it “one of the worst experiences” of her life, but added, “The wonderful part of it was that it gave me an opportunity to pursue the career I wanted. I really wanted to be a trial lawyer.”

But that wasn’t an option for her as a female lawyer. “We could be estate planners,” she said. “We could represent the dead as probate lawyers. We could work in family law. We could be tax lawyers as long as we didn’t have too much client contact.”

That changed when she met Joel Bellows — he would later become her husband and law partner — who was looking for a woman to train as a trial lawyer. “Joel got it,” she said. He understood that women could build relationships with juries. Juries decide cases. End of story.

Joel sent her to what was then called “women’s court” — courts for prostitution and petty theft. “And I argued my little heart out for every one of those women,” Bellows said. That was where she learned one of her most valuable lessons: Never make assumptions about people. “There are all kinds of people who make all kinds of choices for different reasons and I met the most extraordinary women in that court,” Bellows instructed. Her client base grew along with her successes. Nobody had ever defended them. “It was just assumed that they were guilty and that they should be punished,” Bellows added.

Bellows charged those in the audience to pay it forward, a lesson learned from her mentor, Esther Rothstein, the first woman president of the Chicago Bar Association. “Esther didn’t give her support to just anybody,” Bellows explained. When asked for help, Rothstein would say, “I will help, if you make me this promise:  you have to guarantee me that when asked, you will do something significant for somebody else.”

On the topic of work-life balance, Bellows echoed the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom Bellows had interviewed at a breakfast meeting a couple of hours earlier. “Destroy the myth that there is a balanced life,” Bellows advised, quoting the first Latina on the high court. “And that myth that you can have it all?” asked Bellows. “You just have to redefine what ‘all’ is at the moment.”

Network. Network. Network. That is the not-so-secret formula for becoming a successful entrepreneur, Bellows said, urging the young women and law students in the audience to consider everyone they meet a potential client. “There’s nobody in this universe that isn’t a business relationship,” she said. “Start a conversation.”

Bellows attributes her success to her ability to mix business and pleasure. “I have one life,” she said. “My friends are my clients are my advocates are my power base. It’s much simpler.” Her advice:  Get business and have fun at the same time, because you don’t have time to do both separately.