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A Conversation with Aleks O. Rushing and John W. Borkowski - Part I

Meaningful Mentoring at Husch Blackwell

Shortly after joining Husch Blackwell’s St. Louis office as a newly minted associate in fall 2015, Aleks O. Rushing reached out to Chicago office partner John W. Borkowski to mentor her. Seven years later, as Aleks prepares for partnership herself, John is still providing guidance – counsel that has evolved with Aleks’ development. The relationship, one of mutual respect, is a continuum that has benefited both mentee and mentor alike throughout their professional and personal journeys. John Borkowski was the recipient of the HB Mentor Spotlight Award.


Part I of II: From Beginnings to Goal Setting
(Read Part II)

HUSCH BLACKWELL (HB): Why is mentoring so important for attorneys?

ALEKS O. RUSHING (AOR): We refer to law as a practice because it takes practice every single day to really become an expert advisor and counselor of the law. When you stop practicing and learning, you become stale, which is why mentoring is so critical. John mentors me using the lessons he’s learned, but he also seeks my advice. He’ll ask, “Who are some junior associates we should put on this matter who will excel?” or “Who are some people we want to help draft this blog post on a cutting-edge issue?” It’s very much reciprocal.

JOHN BORKOWSKI (JB): I agree with Aleks. We put a ton of time and effort into this. Others will ask me why I do so because I’m a busy partner. They don’t realize just how many benefits there are to the mentor, among them:

  • You build a stronger team because you develop skills in the people who work with you.
  • You create better working relationships and receive more loyalty and commitment because you’re involved with people’s lives and goals.
  • Your client relationships improve. I can’t tell you how many times clients have complimented me on Aleks’ performance or because I trusted Aleks and other junior people to take leadership roles on matters. Clients appreciate that because a lot of them have been at law firms themselves and did not always have that opportunity.
  • You become more reflective. Not only does Aleks give me feedback, but she’ll bring me a problem that she’s navigating that I’ve never experienced, so I’m forced out of my comfort zone to think about the situation and develop my problem-solving skills.
  • Your life becomes more fulfilling when you help people achieve their career goals and develop professionally and personally. It’s probably the most rewarding part of our work. Eventually we’re all going to retire, and we want to look back on a legacy and see a firm and practice with people like Aleks who are continuing to thrive doing the work we love.

It’s really hard to overstate the benefits to mentors. People focus on the benefits to mentees, which are significant, but the benefits on the other side of the equation are just as huge.

HB: Aleks, why did you choose to proactively reach out to John to be your mentor?

AOR: John was mentoring one of my colleagues in St. Louis who was about to become a senior associate, but who decided to go in-house as general counsel for one of our clients. This colleague shared with me that he was able to be honest with John about his career goals and that John was very understanding and supportive of whatever career path he wanted. This struck me as an opportunity, as I was trying to get more involved in the Education group. I was already working with John on a matter, but it was fortuitous that my colleague happened to be leaving when I was a junior associate. John was a newer partner to the firm, very senior in his practice, didn’t really have a junior attorney working with him, and was an amazing mentor to someone I really respected. He also was an amazing attorney and extremely smart. I knew I would be a better attorney if I was mentored by him, so I thought, I’m going to shoot my shot.

HB: So, John, after Aleks reached out to you, how did you start the mentoring relationship?

JB: The first thing we did was talk about what her goals were, because if you’re going to start this process, you have to be mentoring someone toward something. As Aleks said, not everybody has the same goals. Aleks had very clear goals. She wanted to be a partner at Husch Blackwell; she wanted to have a mixed practice of k-12 and higher education work; and she wanted to have a family. So, it was pretty clear what we were shooting for right from the outset.

We had already established trust through working on matters together, which was important to do before we began discussing her goals. If you don’t have trust – particularly if the mentee doesn’t trust the mentor – you’re not going to go anywhere because some people may have goals that they are afraid to share. I once talked to a potential lateral candidate who said to me, “I want to come to Husch Blackwell, learn education law and ultimately be a university general counsel. Is that going to be a problem?” And I said, “No, it’s not a problem because that’s beneficial to us.” We have a lot of former Husch Blackwell attorney alumni who are now clients. So it’s beneficial to the firm if people grow and prosper. But had we brought him in, I would have mentored him differently than Aleks. I would have counseled him differently about with whom he should work, what projects he should seek out, and how to invest his non-billable work time, because the mentee’s personal goals should drive the whole mentoring relationship.

Once we outlined Aleks’ goals, we determined the domains of activity that we would pay attention to for the first three to five years. We were rigorous about focusing on four different domains that I insisted Aleks constantly and very intentionally think about.

AOR: I still have those on a Post-it® Note in my office from when we started this seven years ago! They’re just as relevant now as they were then: (1) meeting firm expectations; (2) skill development; (3) opportunities in the next month, six months, and one year; and (4) building my reputation inside and outside of the firm. Many people only think short term and long term about their goals, and never about the middle, which is just as critical.

JB: And they don’t end up making time to actually do the things they plan for long term if they don’t have interim deadlines attached. It’s easy to lose track of those things amid the need to meet firm expectations and complete daily duties. If you don't plan it, schedule it and have some accountability, a lot of times it just doesn't happen.

HB: That's so true. This sounds like a really well-oiled approach. John, how did you become such an effective mentor?

JB: I think it's three things. First, early in my career, I had very good mentors who recognized and encouraged my talents and ambitions the way I recognize Aleks’. When those mentors moved on to other positions within my old firm or joined the federal judiciary, I made a number of mistakes in my own career development. And so, secondly, I learned from those mistakes, which mostly involved internal and external branding and marketing. No one in law school, particularly in my generation, said anything to lawyers about business development and marketing. It was in the day when if you did good legal work, the clients would come in the door. Yet, by the time I was mid-career, that whole mindset had changed, and whether you were bringing in new business became important to law firms. So, I made some mistakes in that area because I didn't embrace it intentionally enough until I was in my 40s, and by then I was playing catch up. Finally, I like to be organized and rational and map things out, and that helps in mentoring, as in any other long-term project.

AOR: John thinks so strategically, not the way a junior attorney typically thinks, so he changed my frame of reference on how to approach issues. He thinks very methodically, so that’s how we’ve always approached our mentoring relationship, which has also helped my actual legal work too.

HB: So, Aleks, how does the firm support you in achieving your goals?

AOR: The firm supports whatever my career goals are on whatever runway I want to run on, but because there isn’t just one path to achieving those goals, it’s critical to have a mentor for guidance. John has helped me figure out the right path for me. Once you know this, it’s a matter of advocating for yourself and for your team. For example, one idea John and I had to build our brand externally was to create the K-12 Legal Insights blog, which the firm completely supported.

Also, I've never heard of a firm other than Husch Blackwell giving billable hour credit for mentoring activities. John values mentoring so much that he literally gives me something he can't get back, and that's his time. Consistently agreeing to meet with me every single week for 30 minutes to an hour and preparing for those meetings: That is an invaluable resource, and I am eternally grateful to him for that.

To learn more about how their mentoring relationship evolved, read Part II of our conversation with Aleks and John.

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