American Bar Association: A Unique Platform For Positive Change

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - 14:54

The Editor interviews Laurel G. Bellows, President, American Bar Association.

Editor: What were the origins of your interest in the American Bar Association? What motivated you to undertake the arduous task of serving as its president?

Bellows: My roots run deep in the local bar. As president of the Chicago Bar Association (from 1991 to 1992), I was fortunate to become involved with the National Council of Bar Presidents and then to become president of the NCBP. This eye-opening experience with the power of bar associations working in concert to effect real change set the stage for my journey into national bar leadership and introduced me to the world of the ABA. But it was my involvement in the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession that made me a believer in what the association stands for and can accomplish. Working hand in hand with these capable and dedicated women lawyers on substantive issues, I was empowered and incentivized to create real change.

I decided to run for president of the ABA because I realized that the American Bar Association presented a unique national platform for making positive changes in important areas: individual rights, equality and access to justice.

Editor: Tell us about your practice and how your experience as a practicing lawyer will influence your presidency.

Bellows: I am a principal of The Bellows Law Group PC in Chicago and have a strategic alliance with my husband’s firm, Bellows and Bellows PC, where I cut my teeth on business law and litigation, business fraud, and commodities and securities law. I am a critical thinker, business strategist and problem solver for significant U.S.-based corporations. I counsel senior executives and corporations on employment issues, employment and severance agreements, and related executive compensation matters.

My work as a lawyer and leader of my firm has taught me to be a good listener, to make decisions, to set goals and objectives, to be practical rather than aspirational and to be able to set a direction in complex matters. I have learned to utilize different perspectives by working with a diverse group of people. In addition, I have learned how to bring a vision to reality and effect change – for my clients and, now, for the legal profession in our country. 

Editor: Are women particularly exposed to economic uncertainty? Why do you believe it is important for women to achieve economic independence? Do you see the practice of law as road to achieving this goal? How can the ABA help?

Bellows: Women continue to earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men performing substantially similar work. In law firms, average compensation for female law partners has decreased by three percent since 2010, while average compensation for male law partners has grown by more than eight percent. Meanwhile, according to a survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers, only 15 percent of equity partners at the nation’s largest law firms are women – and that number has remained fixed since 2006.

Bias, particularly implicit, continues to exist. The results of discrimination in pay and promotion are devastating, affecting business opportunities offered to women, employment decisions and evaluations of women’s performance.

This bias will worsen if we do not commit now to bring pay equity to the legal profession. The American Bar Association’s Gender Equity Task Force is developing model compensation policies for law firms that will increase transparency in the compensation process, as well as encourage inclusion of women on law firm compensation committees and ensure that women are provided with the same financial opportunities as men.

I am particularly concerned about women who choose to opt out of the profession because one day some emergency may require them to be the sole support for their family, and they will not have the ability to earn a living. Let’s not forget that more than half of American women are now the primary breadwinner for their families.

Editor: One unique component of your Gender Equity Task Force is your focus on working with general counsel. What do you hope to accomplish with that?

Bellows: We are working closely with general counsel through events, such as our Regional Summit for Women General Counsel and Senior Women In-House Counsel in March, because general counsel have the ability to influence how their companies’ resources are spent – and we want to make sure that those resources are expended in a way that rewards women lawyers on an equitable basis. We also want to ensure that companies’ legal budgets are allocated in a manner to assure that women have opportunities to advance in their firms.

Through events like our summit, our Model Compensation Policy Project, our social media outreach and our international networking events, general counsel are discussing creative ways to help ensure that the outside women lawyers who handle their companies’ work are advancing in their law firms and are receiving fair origination credit for that work – while helping each other by networking and sharing ideas about how they can advance and succeed in their respective companies.

Our goal is to increase the numbers of women corporate counsel – and not just in the Fortune 1000 companies. We want to work with women general counsel to help them be successful and to assist them in dealing with the problems they encounter since we know that women are still held to a higher standard of competency.

Most importantly, we want general counsel, male and female, to continue to prioritize the importance of diversity in choosing their outside counsel. We want to assist general counsel in developing alternative billing practices that will assist women lawyers in balancing a practice and outside interests, including a family.

Editor: What can lawyers do to reduce domestic human trafficking? Why is the ABA an ideal vehicle to develop policies to address this problem and to marshal the support of its members to advocate the implementation of such policies?

Bellows: The legal community is a vital link in the eradication of the human trafficking trade. Lawyers bring the specific talents necessary to combat modern-day slavery.

The ABA is the ideal vehicle to combat human trafficking because everything we do is relevant to the law and the effect of the law. Our lawyer members with expertise in business conduct standards can encourage their clients to eliminate slave labor from their supply chains. We also have lawyer members who are experts at legislation and, therefore, are critical to developing uniform state laws that address slave labor and sex trafficking. And we have employment lawyers who are knowledgeable at providing information to all employees so that they can help identify human trafficking victims.

We are training first responders in law – public defenders, judges and prosecutors – so they can assist and identify victims and, ultimately, reroute our criminal process to punish perpetrators rather than victims.

Lastly, the ABA is tremendously successful at developing pro bono projects in this country. We are training lawyers to assist trafficking victims, and we are seeking corporate help. We hope that general counsel and their corporations will become involved in the war to eradicate modern-day slavery in the United States. Anyone who is interested can contact Vivian Huelgo at Vivian.huelgo@americanbar.org

Editor: It is claimed that a persistent hacker can penetrate even the most secure databases. Why is it important for the ABA to develop proposals for mitigating this threat?

Bellows: First, our national security is at stake. Second, lawyers have always played a critical role in finding the balance between national security and our rights and individual liberties. And, third, we need lawyers trained in how to protect their clients from cybertheft and cyberterrorism.

As we increasingly integrate technology into our daily and business lives, the risk of cybertheft grows and the potential consequences worsen. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct are clear that lawyers must make reasonable efforts to prevent unauthorized disclosure of or access to client information. The ABA will provide leading practices for lawyers so they can best protect their clients’ secrets.

The ABA has also assembled the Cybersecurity Legal Task Force, comprised of experts in national security, disaster preparedness, privacy, legal and technology fields. The task force is currently drafting a guidebook for lawyers and law firms on cyber issues and will also examine the government’s role in cybersecurity. 

Cybersecurity is not just a financial and privacy matter; critical infrastructure and national security are also vulnerable. The ABA will focus a great deal of effort in assisting lawyers and the public to understand the threat and develop solutions.