ABA president Laurel Bellows explains why a work-life balance is a myth
Laurel Bellows has been blazing trails for female litigators since she began her career more than 35 years ago. She’s now the president of the American Bar Association and principal of the Bellows Law Group. Already one of the city’s leading corporate lawyers, Bellows chose to open her own firm in 2009 focusing on representing senior executives in transition. Julia Williams began her own family law practice, Williams Law, last year.
JW: How did you build your business? How did you get your name out there?
LB: There is no free time. Client development is a very time-intensive business. You can spend that time and have fun doing it. I used to bring my friends and my clients (who became my friends), we would go to manicures and we would go to plays. We would take our children on a play date or we would go to the Art Institute to see a new show.
I was always on. There is no off. Joel, my husband, makes fun of me, because I go into the ladies room at a restaurant with my business cards.
JW: That’s the perfect place to meet other women.
LB: He would always say, ‘OK, did you come back with a client?’ And the answer was, I often did. I would walk into a nice restaurant to the ladies room and I would tell some woman that her shoes looked really fabulous and she would say the same thing to me and I would say, ‘So what do you do?’ I negotiate employment contracts and separation agreements for executives. And nine times out of 10 they were starting a business or they had a friend [who was looking for a new job]. Most everybody knows somebody who’s in transition.
JW: What’s the difference between the atmosphere in a small firm and a large firm from a women’s perspective?
LB: There are lots of women who have developed terrific practices and wouldn’t be anywhere other than a large firm because of the support system that is there. Though the statistics are pretty abysmal right now — 15 percent of equity partners are women, even after we’ve been celebrating the Equal Pay Act for 50 years. That’s a little iffy to me.
The small firm flexibility [interested me]. There, was no one expecting me to bill X hours. I was expecting me to bill X hours because I needed to eat. To feed our family. [My husband and I] needed to put in a lot of time. But nobody dictated that to us.
JW: How do you know when to bring on another attorney or more staff?
LB: If you’re a small firm, you run mean and lean. You don’t add staff, no matter how much you’re suffering, if you don’t see a path to keeping them on.
We were always concerned about bringing in somebody full-time and then having to let them go. So we never hired until we were just beyond our capability to handle [the workload]. That worked out really well. People were working really, really hard. In these last few years, when things were really tough, our folks have transitioned in and out, we’ve actually hired, but we’ve never had to ask somebody to leave.
JW: How do you decide which cases are your cases and which cases you pass on?
LB: You have to know that you’re going to be able to do well for this client. [Pass] if you have any suspicion that this is a case that you either don’t care to handle or you don’t like the client. If the two of you aren’t clicking personally, try to say, this is just business, it’s not personal. Because if you don’t want to talk to your clients or they’re very difficult people, it’s not going to get better than the first meeting.
JW: [Setting] financial goals is a big challenge. I think part of it is you work until you can’t work anymore so you can make as much money as possible. But you have to set realistic goals for yourself. How did you do that?
LB: Backwards. I have rent, I have office expenses. I have associates to pay. I have a copier machine and a fax and computers and computer support. I figure out what is the nut for every month, and then I figure out who has to bill what.
Then, do I want to add perks? What can I afford to pay my people? And that adds up. Then, what can I earn? As a result of that, what kind of client am I seeking that will be able to pay for that?
At the end of the day, the amount of money you take home is what’s left over. And then you have to figure out: Can I make it under these circumstances? Or do I want to work for someone else and negotiate some freedom?
JW: Why do you recommend [women not leave the practice of law to raise a family]?
LB: It’s the toughest question in the world. What I am seeing is women who are leaving the workforce with the assumption that they will be able to come back. We don’t have the ability to do reentry well. There is no perfect guarantee that you can come back into the practice of law. In fact, I don’t know how you could if you were out of the practice five to 10 years.
JW: So for women who do want to do the family and want to work, what are their meaningful options?
LB: Part time. Contract work, regular work in an area of expertise.
JW: Keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on.
LB: Yes. That face-to-face energy. It’s tough, but economic independence is crucial, and women coming out of professional schools right now have to understand that they are no different than the 50 percent or more of people who get divorced. Exactly who do we think is going to support the families that we go to have and leave our job? It’s going to be us.