Laurel Bellows won’t shy from a fight, but she’d rather work things out
Published in 2011 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 3, 2011
Updated on July 17, 2020
In the lobby of the Chicago Bar Association (CBA) building stands a statue of Lady Liberty rising from—or, depending on your perspective, being devoured by—a block of bronze. It was donated by Laurel Bellows and her husband.
“[The statue] will tell you all that you need to know about me,” says Bellows, a former CBA president.
It’s a comment on what Bellows calls “our fragile democracy” and a visual expression of the nature of justice. For her, some days liberty is on the rise; others it’s sinking in quicksand.
The contrast certainly says a lot about Bellows, who is both a consummate people person and a fighter who sometimes heads into particularly tough negotiations carrying a briefcase that’s decorated with skulls and crossbones.
“Laurel is small in stature, which is more than compensated for by her generosity of spirit and warm smile,” says her friend, Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Hyman. “But she is also undaunted by obstacles. She’s a powerhouse of gutsy determination.”
It’s hard to imagine that anything—a block of bronze, the justice system or an opposing attorney—could possibly devour Bellows.
The daughter of a commercial auctioneer and an actress, Bellows grew up an only child in Highland Park and later, after her parents divorced, Chicago. Her mother’s ability to communicate on stage, seemingly an obvious touchstone for a successful litigator, was not something Bellows inherited.
“I didn’t grow up being outwardly focused,” says the 62-year-old partner at The Bellows Law Group. “I wasn’t an actress and I never auditioned. I was too shy and uncomfortable onstage.”
Instead, from a young age, she played the piano like her concert-pianist grandmother. The attention to detail of that classical training carries over into what she does today.
“Both require patience and putting your entire soul into your work,” Bellows says. “You have to focus on every detail. You can’t ignore the slightest sentence or phrase.”
But one thing Bellows never learned as a child was a lesson siblings often provide for their brothers and sisters, whether they like it or not. Bellows had no idea how to fight.
“You could hurt my feelings in a second,” she says. “Toughness? That came later.”
After getting her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, Bellows took a job promoting a German product named The Handi Screen—a see-through cover for frying pans that let you see if your bacon was done without spattering grease all over the kitchen.
“It was fantastic,” Bellows says of the job, which allowed her to get involved in all aspects of the business: licensing, letters of credit, importing, managing ad budgets and accounting.
After a few years, Bellows knew it was time to move on—to either law or business school. Since she’d already spent a few years in the business world, she says, “the young brain thought, ‘I’ll apply to law school.’”
Bellows wound up at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where she was one of only a handful of women in her class and emerged in 1974 into a job market in which big firms rarely hired female attorneys. And when they did, those women didn’t wind up litigating or developing business practices. Instead they were employed in areas such as wills, trusts and real estate.
Bellows’ first job was with a firm that soon imploded, when one of the name partners died.
Shortly thereafter, she interviewed with an attorney who had a small firm and was looking for a female lawyer he could train as a litigator. His theory was that women excelled at building personal relationships and that this ability to connect would make them better before a jury.
That attorney was Joel Bellows, who, along with a few other lawyers, operated out of an office upstairs from a trading firm and specialized in representing commodities brokers.
Bellows was about to get into court and learn how to fight—just not in the way that she had anticipated.
“When I first came to Joel, I didn’t know where nonfederal court was,” says Bellows, who worked for the U.S. attorney while at Loyola. But when she joined her future husband’s firm, he informed her that she would not be cutting her teeth with the brokers or business litigants.
“Not my cases,” he told her. “Not my clients.”
Instead, Joel Bellows sent her to what they called “women’s court” at 11th and State, where her clients had few resources. The defendants were, indeed, all women, typically facing prostitution or shoplifting charges. Most could pay an attorney only their bond premium, about $50. It was a place where everyone except the defendants had power. The judge would ask each woman if she wanted an attorney.
“The defendants were street-wise,” says Joel, “and someone like Laurel, who cared—climbed down into the trenches with her clients—became in such high demand that, when a defendant was asked if she wanted a lawyer assigned to her, she would say, ‘I want the little blonde who fights.’
“Every day, Laurel would come back with a string of adoring working girls and shoplifters in tow. Invariably, she would be angry about some institutional abuse suffered by a client and she wouldn’t let it go. [She] wouldn’t shrug it off.”
Laurel was filled with what her husband says is the single most identifiable character trait of the seven attorneys who work at their firm: “indignation for abuse of authority.”
Day after day, she was on her feet in women’s court or arguing personal injury cases, experiencing what she calls “the thrill of being able to defend someone.”
Joel adds, “And the clients were loyal. In later years, they came back with house closings and the like. Maybe a dozen years ago, I got a call from one of Laurel’s clients who called looking for Laurel—under her maiden name—because she had created a stuffed olive that she wanted patented and Laurel was the only lawyer she had ever had.”
Laurel remembers learning the ropes of litigation in women’s court. “I became passionate about fighting for my clients—and fighting was the word,” she says. “I needed to be in their corner.”
That is the Laurel Bellows with the bellicose briefcase and two pillows on a chair in her cheerful Rookery office. One says: “Get Over It.” The other reads: “You Can Agree With Me … Or You Can Be Wrong.”
After establishing her reputation as a tough advocate for commodities and securities clients, women from those industries began coming to Bellows with their employment issues. They wanted advice on how to get out of their jobs without losing all that they’d earned, or they needed someone to negotiate their way into a job with better protection.
Before long, her practice became focused on executive compensation law—from employment contracts to severance packages; or, as she puts it, “marriage and divorce—corporate style.”
Severance brings with it all the trauma of a real divorce.
“[Clients] are frightened, no matter how significant they are, and the separation is usually out of their control,” Bellows says. “If you’re representing a CEO who has always been taken care of by his company, all he knows is that he’s on the street. They’re not sure who to turn to. Some come to me before they’ve even told their families.”
That is where the other Laurel Bellows emerges: the woman who is adept at reading others and able to work toward resolution by understanding the emotions and objectives of all parties involved, no matter how acrimonious the situation.
“Laurel is extraordinarily attuned to people, meaning that she is very social, very dynamic and she really listens,” says Monica Weed, general counsel at Navigant Consulting Inc. and a Bellows client. “I’m guessing that, if you were inside of her brain, Laurel is constantly reading you, based on the things you are saying, and filing them away in categories.”
Bellows says she goes into each negotiation knowing that she must be more than a fighter. There always remains a singular goal—all parties must perceive her to be trustworthy.
“Problems are only solved by people who trust each other,” she says. “Even among adversaries.”
That guides everything Bellows does on the day of a negotiation, including how she dresses.
“You need to present yourself in a way that makes the other party trust you,” she says. “You should moderate your dress, your language and your agenda to fit the situation. You need to know your audience and you need to be flexible.”
That flexibility is often passed along to her clients, many of whom are ready to go to war by the time Bellows comes on the scene. While most lawyers of her caliber are adept at addressing what will and won’t work from a litigation perspective, Bellows looks for ways to resolve matters before trial and oftentimes before a heated formal negotiation. Much of her work, Weed says, is behind the scenes.
“She will drill down—almost like being in therapy—until you get to the nub of what’s really bugging you, then she starts creating a solution,” Weed says. “What I value about Laurel is that her advice is well-grounded in the law, but also very practical. She’s good at saying, ‘We could do that, but what about this?’ She enjoys getting to the practical business resolution.”
When Joel met Laurel, he saw someone who was young and enthusiastic, who shared his professional values of working hard, keeping your nose clean and representing your client as well as humanly possible. He saw someone he thought he could train to be a good attorney.
There were, however, a few things he missed, including the fact that they would eventually marry and have a daughter together. That they would become partners in their own firm and that she would be in line to become the president of the American Bar Association (she is currently unopposed and will likely become president-elect this August). Or that she would become a fighter as fierce as he was, while maintaining her gift at connecting with others.
“My natural attitude then and now, 40-plus years later, is that if you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t see things your way—sue them,” he says. “Laurel’s position is that if they don’t see things her way—convince them. After being in day-to-day contact with her for so long, now at least I consider if an accommodation is possible before suing them.”
And on the days when the justice system seems to be tilted in the wrong direction, Laurel Bellows can suit herself to the situation. She is both fighter and therapist.
Which makes the reason she will never be devoured fairly simple.
“What I didn’t appreciate [about Laurel] that I recognize now,” her husband says, “is that she’s just very, very good at dealing with people.”