Barbara Howard has held the reins at both her state and city Bar associations
Published in 2020 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 4, 2019
Updated on April 10, 2020
Growing up in the manufacturing town of Toledo during the 1950s and ’60s, Barbara J. Howard knew exactly what she wanted to be—and it wasn’t a nurse or teacher.
“I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and, thankfully, no one in my family said, ‘You can’t, you’re a female,’” says Howard, who practices family law in a modest office that seems a good fit for her down-to-earth style. From her ninth-floor Mercantile Center office, she has a view of the SkyStar Wheel on downtown Cincinnati’s riverfront.
“I’m one of those people that never changed my major in college. All my friends changed majors a few times. I was political science. I was going to law school. That was it.”
She ended up not only founding her own firm but becoming president of the Ohio State Bar Association.
She certainly had role models. One of six children, Howard is a third-generation lawyer. “My maternal grandfather, Ollie Czelusta, was mayor of Toledo in the 1950s. He and my uncle, my mother’s only brother, had a law practice. My paternal grandfather, Eugene F. Howard, was a lawyer who served as probate court judge for a while. He and my father, Eugene F. Howard Jr., had a law practice.”
Their offices were in downtown Toledo, with her father and grandfather in the Security Building (now called the Madison Building); and her maternal grandfather and uncle across the street in the First National Bank building, along with her great-aunt, their secretary. Both firms practiced general civil law. “Grandpa Czelusta smoked cigars, so I always remember the smell of cigars in his office,” says Howard, who also remembers going downtown to meet her Grandpa Howard for lunch, or to watch parades from his third-floor office.
While she always had the law in mind, family law was furthest from her thoughts. “It was not anywhere on my radar,” she says. “I wanted to be a civil trial lawyer.” But after landing her J.D. at University of Cincinnati College of Law, she went to work at then-Beckman Lavercombe Fox & Weil in Cincinnati, where one of the firm’s partners, Robert Lavercombe, was a sought-after family lawyer. Neither of her fellow associates, she says, “were terribly inclined to do family law. So, once they had me in the door, they said, ‘There you go.’”
Early on, Howard’s cases also included labor law, medical malpractice, real estate, tax law, and commercial and university litigation. But not long after she joined the firm, Lavercombe retired, and his family law clients became the bulk of her practice.
“I realized pretty quickly that I was making a real difference in my clients’ lives, and that was really rewarding,” she says.
After 16 years at Beckman, including 11 as partner, Howard decided it was time to start her own firm. Her husband at the time (in 1989 she was remarried, to Michael Belmont) “really pushed me. He said, ‘Take a look at what you’re doing. You’re working so hard, and you guys provide such extraordinary service to your clients.’
“I had a paralegal and a secretary, and the three of us came down here and opened the door.” Howard became certified as a specialist in family relations law by the state Bar; this year, she celebrates her firm’s 25th anniversary.
In the late ’90s, as her practice was taking off, Howard became drawn to the new collaborative style of family law, which removes disputes from the adversarial courtroom and shifts the focus to personalized problem-solving. She is a member of the Cincinnati Academy of Collaborative Professionals, which consists of leading family law attorneys, therapists and financial specialists.
Howard’s normally calm voice becomes animated on this topic. “Cincinnati is one of the places where [collaborative law] started early and took off,” she says with pride. “What we have found is that, as good as our court system is, it’s really not well-suited for family law cases, especially when there are children involved.”
The parties to a divorce sign a contract saying they will not go to court or threaten to do so. However, they can terminate the contract and head to court after a 30-day waiting period—with one caveat: They both have to hire new lawyers.
“Once a client is involved in a collaborative case, they don’t want to have to start over, and they just say, ‘You know what? We’re just going to settle this.’ So we work in teams—the lawyers, clients and family relations specialist meet, and we walk through [the process] in meetings. The clients are much, much more involved. If we need a financial neutral, these people are trained in collaborative. It’s just so much better. It’s hard, but it’s such a better way for people to go through the process.”
These days, about half her cases are collaborative. “I’m in court far less than I used to be because it’s not worth it,” she says. “I tell clients, ‘You can try it, but the court just isn’t equipped to deal with all the things that are important to you.’ They just can’t. And it’s not because they’re inept; it’s because of the volume of what they do. They don’t have the ability to know your case like you do, and to deal with all those little things that matter for you.”
Family lawyer and mediator Sherri Goren Slovin, who attended the University of Cincinnati College of Law with Howard, often acts as a mediator on her cases. “Barbara Howard has the rare combination of being both an excellent courtroom advocate and an outstanding advocate for her clients in the settlement process,” Slovin says. “I am always impressed with her ability to generate creative options.”
During a career spanning four decades, Howard has served in numerous leadership roles. When she became president of the state Bar in 2009, the recession was in full swing. “We decided that we really needed to help the people who were facing foreclosure—because the foreclosures in the state were just astronomical.” The Bar, along with the governor’s office, several state agencies, the Ohio Supreme Court, housing counseling agencies and legal aid organizations, created Save the Dream, a statewide program for Ohioans at risk of foreclosure. The first phase wrapped up in 2014; a second phase was launched in 2016 and is now administered by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency.
“The result was pretty amazing,” Howard says. “We trained lawyers throughout the state to help deal with foreclosure cases. We saved a lot of people’s homes.”
This year, Howard is looking to add a national title: chair of the House of Delegates, the second-highest office in the ABA. The election is in February, and she is unopposed.
In 1996, Howard helped launch the Cincinnati Academy of Leadership for Lawyers, a Cincinnati Bar program that focuses on instilling civility, ethics and professionalism in young attorneys. “We felt that incivility was really creeping into our practice, and we’ve really gotten some people who I think were on the verge of becoming the ‘obnoxious litigator’ person to become much more civil in the way they practice law,” Howard says.
She also served as president of Volunteer Lawyers for the Poor Board of Trustees, and in 1995, Howard joined the Xavier University Board of Trustees. In 2014, she became the first woman to serve as its chair.
“Barb brought a perspective on the university that was really important to us,” says Xavier president Father Michael Graham. “Her transformation of the board will be enormous, lasting long beyond her tenure or mine.”
Howard does take a little time off from work. “You can’t do this stuff 24/7. It would drive you crazy,” she says. Most days, she heads to the gym early. “If I don’t work out, I’m not a nice person,” she says. “It’s too much stress with this practice. A workout really helps you feel good, get in a good mindset. … If you try to work out at the end of the day, the day gets away from you. You lose control. The minute you walk in the office, who knows what the day is going to bring?”
She also enjoys doing a bit of gardening, baking and cooking (don’t even ask for her secret recipe for zucchini bread). If the local deer weren’t so fond of zucchini, she’d grow her own.
“You go in there and you clean out that garden or you plant the flowers, and there’s a concrete result. It really looks great.” And if you visit Cincinnati’s Findlay Market on a Saturday morning, you might run into Howard shopping for fresh fish, produce, spices or plants. One of her favorite places to play (and work) is her house in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where she stays for long stretches. “I call it my southern office,” she says. “I always say, if you call me and I’m on the beach in Hilton Head, it’s a very good thing. I’m in a good place.”
Key Xavier University Projects Under Howard’s Watch:
- Launch of 16-month Accelerated Bachelor of Science and Nursing program (2016) at Cincinnati campus, expanding to Columbus in 2019 and Cleveland in early 2020
- Completion of Health United Building (2020), encompassing classrooms for health-related academic programs and state-of-the-art fitness and recreation center
- Restructuring of university board from a reporting to a strategic organization
- Relocation/reconstruction of Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel—built in 1938—on Xavier’s academic mall in 2018